Cardinals believe culture, continuity in Vance Joseph’s defense will pay off

Dec 30, 2019, 1:43 PM
Patrick Peterson #21 brings down Todd Gurley #30 of the Los Angeles Rams while Kylie Fitts #49 and ...
Patrick Peterson #21 brings down Todd Gurley #30 of the Los Angeles Rams while Kylie Fitts #49 and Jordan Hicks #58 of the Arizona Cardinals come in for the play in the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
(Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — No doubt Kliff Kingsbury won over his locker room with his adaptability, open ears and willingness to lean on his assistant coaches.

That was made most clear after the first quarter of the season in how the Arizona Cardinals head coach shifted away from a receiver-happy spread offense and utilized the strengths of his tights ends, running backs and veteran offensive line. Buy-in became apparent midway through the year on that side of the ball, but it finally came around for embattled defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, too.

Arizona’s defense showed marked improvements in the final four games of the year.

Joseph will keep his job, Kingsbury said Monday, and while reports indicate the Cardinals (5-10-1) will shuffle some assistants around, a core group of players can continue getting comfortable without a defensive coordinator change for the first time in three offseasons.

“When you look at the last month of the season defensively … we set a standard,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said Monday, a day after Arizona’s season-finale loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

“In my experience, the second year in a defense is probably the biggest jump that you make in a progression of a defense. Between Year 1 and 2, to be able to have the same terminology to go into an offseason with a foundation to build on, it makes all the difference.”

Hicks, the defense’s signal-caller who finished third in the NFL with 149 tackles, said the Cardinals’ improvements came down to the basics: execution.

That was helped by a litany of outcomes throughout 2019:

— Developed comfort learning a new system

— Patrick Peterson took time to find his legs and catch up after missing six games for his PED suspension

— Joseph limited the number of checks late in the season, which alleviated communication issues

— Veterans like D.J. Swearinger, Terrell Suggs and Tramaine Brock were released at various points, making way for younger players who finally settled in

Going young for the culture

To that last point, Kingsbury refused the notion that any of those veterans — receiver Michael Crabtree included — brought anything negative to the locker room. However, Arizona’s head coach did believe that the players replacing the vets fit the team better.

“I think it definitely gave us all perspective on how we want this deal to go and the direction we want to take it,” Kingsbury said of weighing veteran stop-gaps versus youthful development. “There’s definitely a time and place for (signing veterans). I think the learning experience for us was just making sure when you do that, you make sure it is the right time to do it and the right person you’re bringing in.

“I never felt like we had negative energy, but I think just at times we needed youthful energy (of players who were) excited about their opportunities regardless of standing, if you will.”

Rookie safety Jalen Thompson, linebackers Cassius Marsh and Haason Reddick, plus defensive backs Byron Murphy, Chris Jones and Kevin Peterson all took on bigger roles following veteran departures.

And in general, the Cardinals feel good about their locker room culture.

Reasons to believe

Unlike the Steve Wilks era after a 3-13 season, players have several reasons to feel like the coaching staff brought improvements out of them this season with more to come.

You could argue that 12 of the Cardinals’ 16 games were competitive this year, while last year only seven could be argued as such. The Cardinals’ point differential of -5.1 compared to -12.5 a season ago helped, too.

Defensively, the last quarter of the season put Joseph’s job security over the top.

Before the season finale, Joseph shared stats from the three-game stretch with his defensive players. All of the numbers, Hicks said, were top-five in the NFL over that span.

That may be cherry-picking, but it matters even after Arizona allowed 31 points to Los Angeles on Sunday.

“To see it tangibly, not just for the older guys, but to have young guys who really haven’t probably been in that position before, who haven’t seen what a top-five defense looks like … it’s big,” Hicks said. “It builds confidence, it builds a standard of how you play, how you work, how you prepare and what the goal is moving forward.”

Per Sharp Football Stats, Arizona gave up 55 explosive rushes (13% of plays) and 72 explosive passes (11%) for the season, both of which were bottom-seven marks in the NFL.

Even with a young defensive backfield, only 12 of those passing plays (8%) came in the final four games of the year.

Just a month together after a 34-7 loss to the Rams, Joseph’s job looked legitimately on the hot seat. But the film changed for the better from then on — so did the energy, according to players.

Buying in

Patrick Peterson’s homestretch of 2019 sure looked like the Pro Bowl player who suited up for Arizona eight years prior, not like the one who was overthinking and struggling to keep up after his return.

Linebacker Chandler Jones’ resetting of the franchise single-season sacks record at 19.0 produced his best year yet.

Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker only improved as the year went on, and the defensive line managed to finish at a middle-rung 4.4 yards allowed per rush despite tons of turnover and injuries around nose tackle Corey Peters.

Joseph appears to have the support of a once-perturbed star cornerback who asked for a trade under Wilks’ leadership. Peterson, who before this year took not-so-subtle jabs at the prior coaching staff’s philosophies, spoke on the Big Red Rage Thursday about a heart-to-heart he had with Joseph.

After the game Sunday, he once again echoed his belief in what Arizona is building.

“As a secondary, we feel like we are going to be one of the better groups coming in to next year having so many young players having an opportunity to learn,” Peterson told reporters. “End the season and learn how to prepare, learn how to practice, learn how to make proper checks, learn how to be a pro. That’s what it’s all about, finding your niche, finding your regiment that works for you and now you are going out there and playing fast for your brothers and the rest will be history.”

General manager Steve Keim will have his work cut out filling out a depth-lacking defensive ground. The defensive backfield’s depth isn’t great even if it returns all the key contributors left.

There’s lots of room for additions at the interior of the defensive line, and with the second starting OLB and ILB, respectively.

But for the first time in awhile, there’s continuity atop the defensive totem pole with Kingsbury and Keim allowing Joseph to build on top of a drying foundation.

“He definitely has the room and the guys like him,” Peters said. “Having another year in the system to kind of learn the things we need to learn and see the looks, I think that’s only going to help us out. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s trending in the right direction.”

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