DAN BICKLEY

Vance Joseph’s defense stars in much-needed Cardinals win on MNF

Oct 19, 2020, 8:49 PM | Updated: 11:58 pm

Members of the Arizona Cardinals defense act out a bowling pin strike dramatization after being hit...

Members of the Arizona Cardinals defense act out a bowling pin strike dramatization after being hit by a ball rolled by Byron Murphy Jr. who intercepted a Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton pass in the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

(AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

For all the hype, this showdown was not about Lone Stars, school-boy legends, Old West shootouts or Texas-sized homecomings.

This was a victory for Vance Joseph and the Cardinals’ defense.

It was everything you hoped for and never dared to expect from a beleaguered assistant coach.

The Cardinals remain in playoff contention following their 38-10 victory over the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. They are 4-2, even though they haven’t beaten a winning team. Even if the record of their previous six opponents is a woeful 11-24. Even if the Cowboys were depleted by injuries on Monday, with a whopping 12 players on injured reserve.

This outcome feels different because Joseph’s defense had played down to its competition before. Been exposed in the past. Easily confused far too often. But not this time.

After losing Chandler Jones for the season, Joseph compensated like an impact coordinator. He dialed up a variety of blitzes, pressuring Andy Dalton from the opening kickoff. That promptly turned the rusty backup into Capt. Checkdown, ignoring his trio of elite wide receivers.

Budda Baker made a case for the NFL’s Flyweight champion, the best defensive player in the NFL under 215 pounds. Byron Murphy Jr. was a beastly performer. Dennis Gardeck barely missed on two more sacks, including one that would’ve been a safety. And for the first time in forever, the Cardinals’ defense was a disruptive, ball-hawking force.

Ezekiel Elliot fumbled twice, each caused by great individual defensive efforts. Baker had a forced fumble and an interception. The Cardinals turned four Dallas turnovers into three touchdowns.

That’s how you beat bad football teams. You make them quit. And that was the story of the game.

Alas, Arizona’s offense remains an enigma. The Cardinals rank among the most penalized teams in the league, many of them coming on offense. Those seduced by Kyler Murray highlights are astounded at how boring the overall scheme appears on any given Sunday. National media pundit Mike Sando chimed in with the following during Monday’s performance:

Don’t be fooled by the point total or Kenyan Drake’s late touchdown. The Cardinals offense isn’t nearly as impressive or electric as it should be. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is great on fourth-down conversions but is still struggling to build something sustainable.

They continue to attempt high-leverage passes to Andy Isabella, who is absolutely terrible on most occasions. They reflect an inconsistent quarterback who struggles finding and hitting open receivers. He’s missed Larry Fitzgerald on numerous occasions in 2020, including a sure touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that drew a look of frustration from the Hall of Fame receiver.

Quarterbacks don’t lose elite-level accuracy overnight, so this must be a vision issue. Or maybe Murray doesn’t read the field or survey complex defenses all that well at the NFL level. Either way, Kingsbury needs to adjust and design plays for Murray to throw on the run, in a moving pocket.

Bottom line:  Despite an ESPN fluff piece that surfaced on Monday, describing Kingsbury as a “Beautiful Mind,” we’re talking about an offense that remains a work-in-progress 22 games into Kingsbury’s head coaching career. He has proven remarkably humble and adaptable in Arizona, but that’s because some of his ideas aren’t working.

But Monday night wasn’t about Kingsbury or Murray. It was about Arizona’s defense, which affirmed its strong statistical showing against a previous buffet of NFL weaklings. They arrive at a crossroads with real momentum and a two-game winning streak, entering a pivotal stretch of schedule that features two games against the unbeaten Seahawks. And more to the point:

When Joseph was hired, he vowed to be Kingsbury’s ally and protector, to watch his back, to help the unconventional head coach navigate the mean streets of the NFL.

On Monday Night, Joseph fulfilled that promise and more. A night when the lone star at midfield belonged to the Cardinals’ defense and its oft-criticized leader.

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