Reloaded Cardinals defense gives DC Vance Joseph chance to attack
Find the Arizona Cardinals’ opposing tight end, and you could feel like CBS analyst Tony Romo calling the red zone touchdown before it happened last season.
Watching the Arizona defense in 2019 brought that kind of predictability. For as much as the Kyler Murray-Kliff Kingsbury combination felt like a success to Cardinals fans, frustration came when watching first-year coordinator Vance Joseph’s unit.
Was it his fault?
The Cardinals opened the year with rookie Byron Murphy and undrafted second-year pro Chris Jones playing cornerback. By the final game, rookies and career backups filled out most of the lineup.
“I walked away out of that press box every game and I said, ‘You know what?’ I vowed we would fix this defense,” general manager Steve Keim said after Arizona took four defensive players in the 2020 draft.
Personnel-wise, it wasn’t there for the Cardinals in 2019, and Joseph appeared to be on the hot seat at year’s end. Instead of firing his DC, Keim spent most of his time this offseason reloading the defense.
Additions expected to be immediate contributors
DT Jordan Phillips (6-foot-6, 341 pounds): 9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 16 QB hits, 1 forced fumble in 2019
ILB De’Vondre Campbell (6-foot-3, 232 pounds): 129 tackles, 2 interceptions, 2.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles last year
OLB Devon Kennard (6-foot-3, 256 pounds): 58 tackles, 7.0 sacks, 15 QB hits, 2 forced fumbles in 2019
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (6-foot-2, 190 pounds): 33 tackles, 4 passes defensed over 6 games last year
ILB Isaiah Simmons (6-foot-4, 233 pounds): The 2020 draft’s No. 8 pick can play alongside Jordan Hicks and Campbell at inside linebacker and be used to rush the passer or drop into coverage
DT Rashard Lawrence (6-foot-2, 308 pounds): A ready-to-go nose tackle out of LSU who is expected to be in the rotation
DT Leki Fotu (6-foot-5, 330 pounds): More raw than Lawrence, Fotu’s massive size should make him ready to play as a backup on the line
Joseph’s ascension through the NFL coaching ranks happened suddenly.
After more than a decade in the league as a defensive backs coach, his first year as a defensive coordinator for the Dolphins in 2016 made him a head-coaching candidate. He was hired to lead the Denver Broncos the next year and went 11-21 over two seasons before being fired. The Cardinals believed he would bring something similar to their aggressive defenses of the past.
On paper, the 2020 team looks capable of being that.
Joseph can finally play an attacking 3-4 scheme that relies upon press coverage on the corners and multiple pass-rushers on the edges. Patrick Peterson, in a contract year, isn’t suspended like he was to start last season, and the addition of Kirkpatrick — plus the development of Murphy — gives Arizona size at corner.
“That makes a 3-4 defense go,” Joseph said. “If you can play man coverage, it makes calling games easier, it makes game-planning a lot easier.”
Pro Bowler Budda Baker and second-year safety Jalen Thompson held down the backend well toward the end of 2019. Phillips and nose tackle Corey Peters are expected to clog the middle, allowing for outside linebacker Chandler Jones and newcomer Kennard to fly off either edge.
“If Chan’s out there doing what he does, great, he’s going to get his 15, 16 sacks a year. But where’s the help at?” Phillips said. “He can’t do it all himself. I feel like that’s why I was brought here, that’s why D.K. was brought here, to help Chan.”
But maybe the biggest change comes at inside backer, where Jordan Hicks has two tall, athletic players beside him to cover tight ends.
In a word, the Cardinals in 2020 are more multipurpose, with a bevy of package options for Joseph to use that odd front and confuse offensive coordinators.
He has the luxury to create gameplans for his backups like Simmons, who may not usurp playing time from Hicks or Campbell. Expect him to play often alongside the two vets, creating an element of disguise of which of them will rush or drop.
While not trying to overstate the newcomers, there’s also familiarity with so many players returning.
Hicks is the voice of the defense and has less on his plate. Campbell is taking communication duties and will also be the guy covering tight ends down the field.
Jones wants to chase Michael Strahan’s sack record after dropping quarterbacks 19 times a year back. The defensive back unit returns with a potential breakout player in Thompson. Peterson is motivated to show a disappointing 2019 was an anomaly and not a sign of a downward trend.
“Having the core of your defense back is huge. Now you understand your personnel … now you know what positions you can put guys in,” Peterson said of Joseph. “You know what calls you can get away with, you know what calls you can’t call.
“Having an offseason to self-evaluate his self, myself, his players, I think (will) definitely be a night-and-day season for us this year because we could have been so much better in certain areas that we were so close to making plays, we just didn’t make those plays. We have the opportunity to look forward to those plays. The plays that hurt us last year, look forward to the teams trying to exploit us on those plays this year.”
Defensive line coach Brentson Buckner returned to Arizona’s staff and will work under Joseph for the first time. He credited the DC for bringing the best out of his assistant coaches and players.
“He’s a guy that, he’s not a dictator, so he takes input from all the coaches,” Buckner said. “He wants you to coach the guys and he wants you to bring stuff to the table. He likes to play the game from a mental point of view. He’s constantly telling guys, know what they can and can’t do to you and trust it, trust the system.
“He’s been good trying to get guys into positions where they can play comfortable … Then with the talent we got, we can be a multiple-type team because we got guys that can do several jobs because of their length, size and speed, or just their knowledge of the game.”
Joseph is a former head coach Kingsbury can lean in football terms, of course. But Joseph’s contributions go beyond the expected for a defensive coordinator.
This offseason, it was Joseph speaking to his team as an older Black man and former NFL player. He gave them perspective about racism and social justice reform in the wake of police killings that rocked the United States.
“Vance is the same person each and every day, which I really respect,” Hicks said. “He’s a natural born leader. He’s done a great job for us, pushing us forward, making sure we’re motivated every day and keeping the focus of who we’re going to be, who we’re aspiring to be.
“I respect him a ton, the way he leads, the way he coaches and just who he is as a person.”
Joseph’s relationships with players run deep. It’s why Kirkpatrick, who Joseph coached with the Cincinnati Bengals, agreed to join Arizona midway through training camp after cornerback Robert Alford’s season-ending pectoral injury. Phillips also played for Joseph in 2016 with Miami.
“When you meet Vance, there’s an instant respect,” Kingsbury said. “He treats guys with respect, he treats them like men but he has high expectations.
“I know anything I go to him with any point or thing I’m bringing up, he’s all in all the time. As a head coach, that means the world to you that you have a guy like that who supports you and has the respect of the team like he does.”