Whether it is Pop Warner football or the NFL, defenses typically focus on stopping the run. The first place to look is the defensive line. For the Arizona Cardinals, the defensive line struggled to make an impact in 2018. Wholesale changes occurred as a result, with a switch back to a 3-4 scheme and the hiring of a new defensive coordinator. As we get closer to the open of the 2019 season, we take some time to focus on the Arizona defensive line, and what to expect as we progress through the summer.
Defensive End: Robert Nkemdiche
Nose Tackle: Corey Peters
Defensive End: Rodney Gunther
A Solid Rotation
The 2018 Cardinals defense struggled for most of the season. Primarily, they struggled up front, against both ground and air attacks. Arizona’s base alignment featured four defensive linemen, something not seen in the desert since the early 2000’s. The switch moved players out of familiar positions, but more importantly, changed the rotation for those same players. Rotation isn’t talked about very often. However, a defensive line lacking in quality along its rotation, is likely a line who struggles late in games.
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Switching back to a base 3-4 alignment after just one year is a blessing for the Cardinals defense. Gunther and Nkemdiche received the playing time necessary to find their grooves and show what they could do. With Peters back from an injury, the three make a solid starting unit up front. Throw in the new additions through the draft and free agency, the Cardinals have a defensive line rotation, one which could surprise many with their play.
The current Cardinals roster lists four rookie defensive linemen. Considering the Cardinals had the top overall selection, and chose to ignore their defensive line entirely, it is no surprise the team went to the position often later in the draft and later. Arizona’s rookies are led by Zach Allen. The Cardinals selected Allen with the first pick in the third round and hope he can be the new bookend pass rusher. Allen played defensive end at Boston College, but they primarily operated with four down linemen. Given his size, it would not be surprising to see him join the rotation in run downs at the end spot. He was a superb run defender while in college.
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Michael Dogbe and Immanuel Turner share similar builds with Allen. The two rookies are viewed as long term projects and suited for rotational play at the 3T or 5T. Miles Brown has the size to play inside but is also someone in need of refinement. The rookies, outside of Allen, aren’t expected to make immediate impacts in 2019. In spot situations (goal line/short yardage), it would not be surprising to see Dogbe, Turner, or Brown on the field. Anything else however, would be asking for mistakes to be made.
Back to Basics
For fans of the Cardinals, the hiring of Vance Joseph was an exciting move. Over the last three seasons, his defenses have been formidable units in the NFL. The biggest motivation in the hiring of Joseph is his familiarity with the 3-4 base scheme. Arizona’s defensive personnel is better suited for the defensive scheme, specifically the defensive line. The Cardinals’ personnel closely resembles the front line Joseph had in Denver, in terms of overall talent and depth. The key will be unlocking the potential and getting to a consistent level.
The key for the defensive line is to focus on your individual tasks. Ideally, the three up front can occupy blockers and allow the second level to swarm in and make the play. A player like Peters, is ideal to play 0T or 1T, focusing on collapsing the interior of the line while taking up the center and guard. The defense is set up to stop the run first, to force offenses into obvious passing situations. At that time, Joseph intends to bring the pressure. However, none of it matters, if the Cardinals are unable to stop the run. A switch back to the 3-4 will help that. The hiring of Joseph makes it a lot easier.