Jordan Hicks: Young ‘avatars’ helping Cardinals stop opposing tight ends

Nov 6, 2021, 9:02 AM
Isaiah Simmons #9 of the Arizona Cardinals gets ready to rush the passer against the Green Bay Pack...
Isaiah Simmons #9 of the Arizona Cardinals gets ready to rush the passer against the Green Bay Packers at State Farm Stadium on October 28, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. Green Bay won 24-21. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Remember before the 7-1 starts and amid the rebuilding project how the Arizona Cardinals, for whatever reasons, just couldn’t stop opposing tight ends?

In head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s first year with Arizona in 2019, the Cardinals allowed 16 touchdowns to tight ends, six more than the NFL’s next-worst defense.

In total, Arizona allowed 1,148 yards to tight ends, also the most in the league.

How could they fix it? Joseph and defensive players were asked that question weekly two years ago.

“You guys wouldn’t stop asking that question,” said linebacker Jordan Hicks on Thursday, when Big Red Rage co-host Paul Calvisi on Thursday point out the change in fortunes over the past two years.

Calvisi asked the veteran MIKE linebacker if he knew how many tight end touchdowns Arizona has allowed through eight games in 2021.

The answer: zero.

The Cardinals are among four teams who haven’t allowed a touchdown to an opposing tight end, per Pro Football Reference, and the team is tied for the second-fewest yards allowed (225) to them.

The “why” to understand what’s changed is pretty obvious. Arizona has drafted inside linebackers to place around Hicks in each of the last two first rounds.

Second-year man Isaiah Simmons has flourished after the Cardinals took the training wheels off following 2020. He’s evolved into the role the team sought out for him, as he’s been used in coverage from the slot, as a downhill gap-filler against the run and as an edge rusher in sub-packages.

Rookie Zaven Collins, who was expected to be the starter entering the year, lost his every-down role when Hicks put together a strong camp and earned captainship once again.

But Collins has found his place in certain packages, playing alongside Hicks and Simmons.

“We were joking today, me and (fellow veteran linebacker Tanner Vallejo), that we have two avatars in our room right because they’re complete freakshows, right?” Hicks said on the Big Red Rage. “Six-4, 6-5, Zaven’s 250 (pounds) and can fly downhill, and Isaiah’s a 4.3(-second 40-yard dash) guy who can rush the edge, be physical at the point of contact but also cover,” Hicks added. “Like, where does that come from?

“It’s unbelievable to see their growth, especially this going into Isaiah’s second year, his development from Year 1 to Year 2, his understanding of the game, his versatility. It really is a huge part of what makes our defense go, is his ability to move around and be the key player in certain spots.”

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Jordan Hicks: Young ‘avatars’ helping Cardinals stop opposing tight ends