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Cardinals relying on young secondary against the Bengals

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 08: Marvin Jones Jr #11 of the Detroit Lions is upended by Budda Baker #32 of the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of the NFL football game at State Farm Stadium on September 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. – For all the issues the 2018 Arizona Cardinals had, they did at least manage to pick up their first win by Week 5. They didn’t win much after that, but still. They picked up a victory their fifth time out. And if this year’s team is going to match that this Sunday, they’re going to have to do it with a completely reconstructed secondary.

To be clear, this year’s team is noticeably better than last season’s was. Just based on the eye test alone. But pressure is mounting to put any number other than a zero in the win column sooner rather than later, and a matchup with the 0-4 Cincinnati Bengals would seem to present the perfect opportunity.

Problem is, Kliff Kingsbury’s group is still playing without Patrick Peterson for two more weeks and Robert Alford for at least four more weeks. And now they’re going to be working a pair of rookie safeties into the mix too.

That’s because the team released veteran D.J. Swearinger on Monday. He had struggled, so it may very well prove to be the right move. But he was also out there on every down, so the experience level of an already youthful secondary just got even lower.

Both Deionte Thompson and Jalen Thompson are in line to take on the workload that Swearinger leaves behind, though it’s not totally clear how the snaps will be divvied up just yet. To put their lack of experience in perspective, Deionte has only played a handful of snaps over the first four games, recording one career tackle at the NFL level. Jalen has yet to even do that.

“Those two guys are guys we brought in for a reason and drafted and have liked what we’ve seen so far,” Kingsbury reminded everyone this week.

“I think they can both play at a high level,” he went on. “Regardless of what we’re asking them to do, both had stellar college careers and have gotten better and better in this system and learning it. They’ve made the proper steps.”

If you’re a Cardinals fan feeling optimistic, getting the young duo live game experience now should hasten their development and make them better for 2020. Everyone knew there would be growing pains this season, and this is just the latest example as the youth movement is clearly in full effect.

For their part, both rookies are confident they can step in and do whatever Vance Joseph needs them to do though.

“I’m ready to go,” Jalen said. “At the end of the day, we’ve been playing football our whole lives. It’s just another game. Just play football out there pretty much. That’s it. So I’m ready to go.”

“It shouldn’t be any dropoff,” Deionte echoed. “No matter who’s not playing, it shouldn’t be a dropoff. We have to keep the standard of the defense the same no matter who [Jospeh] puts out there, so that’s what we plan on doing.”

So now an Arizona secondary that was originally constructed around one of the best cover corners in Peterson, a six-year vet who once intercepted Tom Brady in the Super Bowl in Alford and a feared hitter entering his seventh season in Swearinger looks completely different. Tramaine Brock, the two Thompsons and fellow rookie Byron Murphy are being leaned on instead. And Budda Baker – in just his third season – is suddenly the vet among the safeties.

“Having Budda in the meetings every day and being able to rely on him and talk with him in the locker room and on and off the field has been very helpful for me,” Deionte pointed out. “He’s helped me see things from a different view and I’m very thankful that he’s in this locker room with me.”

Working in the Cardinals’ favor is the fact that the Bengals will be without leading receiver John Ross III this weekend after placing him on IR with a collarbone injury. And they haven’t had perennial Pro Bowler A.J. Green at all this season. So Andy Dalton doesn’t have a ton of established targets to lean on if he wants to exploit the youth in Arizona’s secondary.

The weather forecast is suggesting rain could be an issue on Sunday too, which might actually help the Cards’ defense in this case. At least in the sense that it might minimize how much Cincinnati tries to throw. Regardless of how first-year head coach Zac Taylor wants to attack Arizona’s defense, though, Baker sees this as a tremendous opportunity for his first-year teammates, and he’s confident they’re ready to step up.

“You know that one song — I want to be a baller, shot caller?” he asked. “This is their time to be a baller. They’re young but this is the time that they can play.”

They just need to learn on the fly now. And not let the moment get too big.

“For me, I just told them to have fun,” he explained. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have our game plan and it’s going to be a great game plan, but just have fun.

And don’t think, because the more you think the more you mess up plays. So just have fun and outrun your mistakes, if they were to make mistakes. That’s what I’d tell them as well. But they’re going to be very dialed in and ready to go.“

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