Vance Joseph in the spotlight as the Cardinals’ schedule grows some teeth

Oct 16, 2020, 5:35 PM
Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph of the Arizona Cardinals watches from the sidelines during the N...
Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph of the Arizona Cardinals watches from the sidelines during the NFL preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargersat State Farm Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Chargers 17-13. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Everything is bigger in Texas. Especially the football.

On Monday night, the Cardinals will take their place under the Big Top. They will be part of the circus. In a colossal stadium with stars on the field and a star at midfield.

The Cardinals are a 3-2 football team stuck in third place. They’re playing a 2-3 football team that occupies first place. There will be two homegrown quarterbacks, including one schoolboy legend. The Big Red vs. the Red Rifle.

And on the Arizona sideline, there will be a defensive coordinator who needs to make his own statement.

This has nothing to with statistics, where the Cardinals currently rank 10th in overall defense. They are beneficiaries of an extremely soft early-season schedule. There have also been comforting moments when the defense plays with much greater physicality and efficiency, getting off the field on third down.

But they’ve also struggled at critical junctures. Too many men on the field. Not enough men on the field in a goal-line situation. The disastrous fourth quarter against the Lions. The thrashing received from Carolina rookie offensive coordinator Joe Brady. The words of Patrick Peterson, who deflected his own struggles in a recent loss on the lack of synchronicity around him. And, of course, the handling of Isaiah Simmons.

Simmons started in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, and was promptly exposed by Niners coach Kyle Shanahan. It’s as if the opponent knew more about Simmons’ weaknesses than his employers. He has played sparingly ever since. And don’t blame it all on the lack of a preseason — not when so many other defensive rookies are succeeding elsewhere.

Simmons has either been invisible or embarrassed during his limited snaps. He gave up two touchdowns and was penalized for a horse-collar tackle against the 49ers. You would think Joseph might install a special blitz package where Simmons could sack or pressure the quarterback, just for the sake of building a rookie’s confidence. But it hasn’t happened yet.

The loss of Chandler Jones is an even greater concern. It means that Joseph must help manufacture pressure on Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton. To be clear, I’m not asking the current DC to transform into Todd Bowles overnight, an elite coordinator masterful at disguising blitzes and getting all of his players on the same page.

But Joseph should be able to dial up exotic blitzes without triggering all sorts of mental errors and communication problems in his defense. It’s called coordinating, and that’s his job.

The Cardinals are about to face a dangerous offense in Dallas, followed by a great quarterback in Russell Wilson. The schedule is about to grow some real teeth, and the Cardinals have already squandered their margin for error. It will be much more accurate to judge Joseph and Arizona’s defense moving forward than it will be looking backward, even with the season-ending loss of Jones. Because this kind of adversity is what always fuels innovation among the NFL’s great defensive minds, from Bill Belichick to Mike Zimmer, from Dick LeBeau to Wade Phillips to Buddy Ryan.

Keep your fingers crossed. Arizona has a dicey history with prime-time football. The last time the Cardinals were truly embarrassed on national television came during a 45-10 loss to the Broncos in 2018. Mike McCoy’s offense was so unprepared for the big stage that it required a timeout before the second play from scrimmage. And when play resumed and they finally snapped the ball, the Broncos promptly scored on a pick six. The head coach of that Broncos team?

Vance Joseph. Not on the hot seat in Arizona just yet. But definitely in the spotlight. And it’s about time he assists in a big victory, one that can elevate an entire football team.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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