By the numbers: The Cardinals defense before a showdown with Seahawks
Tackling, third downs and red zone stops. Those are what the Arizona Cardinals wanted to focus on in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s second year on the job.
So far, so good.
Through Week 6 and after their best defensive performance of the year, a 38-10 win against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, the Cardinals (4-2) enter a pivotal NFC West game against the 5-0 Seattle Seahawks with momentum.
Behind MVP candidate Russell Wilson, Seattle leads the NFL by putting up 33.8 points per game heading into the matchup. So something’s got to give.
It’s a chance for the Cardinals prove that the numbers to this point are no fluke. After all, playing San Francisco, Washington, Detroit, Carolina, the New York Jets and Dallas may or may not have influenced how good Arizona’s defense has looked.
What’s made the Cardinals successful? What do the statistics say about their three key points of improvement for 2020? Let’s look at it, by the numbers.
Cardinals opponents have scored 18.7 points per game, the second-fewest in the NFL through Week 6. Only the Baltimore Ravens (17.3) allow less. Arizona is just ahead of a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is 5-0 but also the 3-3 Miami Dolphins, who are each allowing 18.8 points per game.
Third-down defense haunted Arizona last season, and Joseph has found a way to turn that for the better in 2020. The Cardinals have allowed opponents to convert on 24 of 74 third downs, a 36.5% rate that’s seventh-best in the NFL. In 2019, it was a bottom-three third-down conversion rate of 46.7%.
The Cardinals have allowed a lot of red zone trips (24), but opponents scored touchdowns on just 10 of those. That’s good for the second-best red zone defense in the league.
Arizona has allowed the fewest total air yards (542) in the NFL through Week 6, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. It’s a sign Joseph’s squad is keeping receivers in front of them. Room for improvement might be possible after the completions. The Cardinals have allowed 721 yards after the catch, a bottom-eight total.
With four turnovers forced on Monday Night Football, the Cardinals more than doubled their total in the first five games of the season. Seven turnovers on the year puts them in the middle of the NFL pack, with the Cleveland Browns (12) leading the way. The Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Las Vegas Raiders are struggling to earn extra possessions with a league-low three turnovers forced.
Arizona has 17 sacks so far this season, a top-seven figure.
While the sacks are good, the Cardinals still can improve putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They are getting pressure on QBs 20.2% of the time, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Arizona is also in the bottom-10 in quarterback hurries and quarterback knockdowns.
Since Chandler Jones was lost in the first half of a Week 5 win over the New York Jets, Joseph has gotten more aggressive with his blitzing. That continued against Dallas, and while the 28.3% blitz rate is smack dab in the middle compared to the rest of the NFL, expect that to continue to rise. It was pushing 40% a year back.
The run defense has been more of a problem than the pass defense, but allowing 4.4 yards per carry is exactly league average.
Arizona has allowed only three rushing touchdowns all year as it’s firmed up in the red zone. Only five other teams have allowed three or fewer.
Opponents on either side of the ball have helped the Cardinals. They have drawn 40 penalties through six games, the fourth-highest amount in the league.