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Updated Dec 3, 2013 - 11:54 pm

Tight ends torching Arizona Cardinals’ defense, but it’s not as bad as you think

Fans of the Arizona Cardinals were channeling their inner-Yogi Berra Sunday, because when it came to the Big Red defense covering tight ends, it was deja vu all over again.

In other words, the Cardinals, who have the seventh-ranked defense in the National Football League, struggled to contain Philadelphia tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek in a 24-21 loss. The duo had nine catches for 97 yards and most importantly, three touchdowns.

That brought the number of touchdowns scored by tight ends against the Cardinals to 14 this season.

Despite the alarming numbers, Arizona head coach Bruce Arians doesn’t think the tight end production against his team is an anomaly.

“I think they’ve exploited the league,” he said on The Dan Bickley Show with Vince Marotta Monday. “They’re a very hard matchup for safeties. Most safeties are 5-10 or 5-11 and most of these tight ends are 6-5 or 6-6, so you can throw the ball away from them.”

I decided to do a little research on the matter — and that research was startling.

In addition to the 14 touchdowns, opposing tight ends have caught 79 balls for 1,042 yards against the Cardinals. Their division opponents haven’t sustained nearly as much damage against largely the same group of players.

Tight End Production vs. NFC West Teams

Team Catches Yards Average TD 100-yard games
Arizona Cardinals 79 1,042 13.2 14 3
San Francisco 49ers 44 425 9.7 3 0
Seattle Seahawks 56 606 10.8 4 0
St. Louis Rams 44 525 11.9 4 0

Yes, it looks bad. The Cardinals have allowed three of the 23 100-yard performances by tight ends in the league this season. And three tight ends, Vernon Davis of San Francisco, Jared Cook of St. Louis and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham have the posted the three highest receiving yardage totals the Cards have allowed this year.

But if Arizona is shutting down opposing wide receivers, the opponents’ passing numbers are just being distributed differently, right?

“Our matchups outside on wide receivers are very good against everybody,” Arians said.

But are they?

Wide Receiver Production vs. NFC West Teams

Team Catches Yards Average TD 100-yard games
Arizona Cardinals 137 1,566 11.4 8 2
San Francisco 49ers 145 1,837 12.7 6 3
Seattle Seahawks 122 1,390 11.4 7 3
St. Louis Rams 149 2,030 13.6 13 3

As you can see, the Cardinals are allowing only 11.4 yards per reception to opposing wideouts — tied for the lowest mark in the division — and the 1,566 yards they’ve given up is also a respectable number. But the numbers are really only put into context when combined.

Combined TE/WR Production vs. NFC West Teams

Team Catches Yards Average TD 100-yard games
Arizona Cardinals 216 2,608 12.1 22 5
San Francisco 49ers 189 2,262 12.0 9 3
Seattle Seahawks 178 2,174 12.2 11 3
St. Louis Rams 193 2,555 13.2 17 3

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, rushing defense. Arizona ranks fourth in the league (first in NFC West) in defending the run, allowing just 83.3 yards per contest. So it stands to reason that opponents would throw more against them — and they have.

Opponents throw on Arizona an average of 39.9 times per game — the fourth-highest number in the league. And the Cardinals are tied for fourth in the league in net yards per pass attempt against at just 4.9.

The bottom line is, yes, opposing tight ends have blistered the Cardinals’ defense in 2013.

But the numbers seem to support Arians’ assertion that the cornerbacks of the Cardinals have matched up well with wideouts, who in the grand scheme, are much more dangerous on a week-in, week-out basis.


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