The first two games of 2020 have been promising for coordinator Vance Joseph.
As the Arizona Cardinals (2-0) prepare to face Detroit in Week 3, he should feel a lot less helpless than he did going into 2019’s Week 1 matchup against the Lions, when he was down two starting cornerbacks and two starting-caliber defensive linemen.
By Football Outsiders’ DVOA and yards per game, Arizona has a top-10 defense through two games of 2020. By points allowed (17.5), the Cardinals are second in the NFL. They lead the league by limiting opponents to convert on third downs just 26% of the time.
Even against a 49ers offense led by George Kittle on one leg and then facing a second-year quarterback in Dwayne Haskins and Washington in Week 2, those are promising numbers.
“I mean, it’s just two games in. Don’t crown us, don’t do anything crazy. We got a lot more to show, a lot more to give,” free agent addition Jordan Phillips said Tuesday.
“We gave up 100-and-some yards rushing the last few weeks and that’s unacceptable. The great thing about our D-line so far through these last two games is there’s been no drop-off from the 1s and the 2s: 1A, 1B. If we can stay healthy and keep rotating the way we’re rotating and everybody’s out there giving 100%, the sky’s the limit for our room.”
If anything, the start has shown that GM Steve Keim’s moves this offseason have made an immediate difference, especially in the front seven.
Phillips, outside linebacker Devon Kennard and inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell all made significant plays last week in a 30-15 win over Washington. Campbell has been irreplaceable so far, which has kept rookie linebacker and first-round pick Isaiah Simmons mostly watching from the sidelines.
Kennard and Phillips have been heavily in the rotation, but they have found time to take breathers because of the depth.
Backup nose tackle Rashard Lawrence, a fourth-round pick, has been Arizona’s most-used rookie. He got 25 snaps in Week 2. Waiver pickup Angelo Blackson has split time with fellow end Zach Allen and appeared on 32 defensive plays against Washington, an increase in snaps from the opener.
Arizona has used backup Haason Reddick often along with star edge rusher Chandler Jones and Kennard at outside linebacker, while Simmons has gotten plugged in as a third ILB on occassion.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can be starters,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. “Our first meeting in training camp, we talked about playing agenda-free football with every man being a star in his role.”
To that point, Peters said his lone sack of the year against the 49ers two weeks ago came because Jones set him up.
“I know a lot of guys who don’t want to participate in team games and stuff like that, they just want to be one-and-one and get theirs,” Peters said. “He’s more interested in winning the game.”
The Cardinals have seven sacks by seven different players, which is more than 28 other teams through two weeks. Jones, who had 19.0 sacks last year, has accounted for one of them.
Pocket pressure has been created with the usually aggressive Joseph blitzing 29% of the time this year, according to Pro-Football-Reference. That’s down from Arizona blitzing 40% of the time, third-most in the NFL, last year.
The defense has been less successful stopping opponents’ ground games. Arizona is allowing 5.0 yards per carry, the sixth-worst mark in football, and it ranks 19th in rush defense DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
Sunday at State Farm Stadium, the Cardinals face a Lions team that has split carries between running backs Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson — the 35-year-old Peterson is averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Detroit (0-2) also has explosive rookie D’Andre Swift in the mix.
Combine that versatile group with the passing attack, and it’s possible this is the most balanced offense the Cardinals have faced so far this year.
In other words, it might be time to determine if this defensive front is that legit.
“I think it’s been an up-and-down start,” Peters said of his unit. “Obviously we’ve got to get better in the run game. I think if we can shore up some of those mistakes, we’ll be even tougher.
“I think we’re still working our way into what we can be as a front and as a defense.”