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.”

Arizona Cardinals

Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) celebrates during the first half of an NFL wild-ca...
Wills Rice

Report: Rams’ Aaron Donald fined for run-in with Cardinals’ D.J. Humphries

Report: Rams DT Aaron Donald has been fined $10,815 for his incident with Cardinals OT D.J. Humphries in Monday's Wild Card loss.
16 hours ago
Iowa offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum (65) looks to make a block during the first half of an NCAA...
Alex Weiner

Cardinals select Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum in latest PFF mock draft

Pro Football Focus had the Arizona Cardinals selecting Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum in its first mock draft since Arizona's season ended.
16 hours ago
Kelvin Beachum #68 of the Arizona Cardinals leads teammates onto the field before the NFL game agai...
Alex Weiner

Arizona Cardinals positions of need: Offensive line breakdown

Right guard Max Garcia is the only Arizona Cardinals starting offensive linemen who is an upcoming free agent.
2 days ago
Linebacker Karlos Dansby #58 of the Arizona Cardinals claps in the second half against the St. Loui...
Arizona Sports

Former Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby: Moment was too big for them

Former Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said Arizona was not able to slow the game down when it started to slip in Monday's playoff loss. 
2 days ago
Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones (55) and Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker J...
Wills Rice

Arizona Cardinals positions of need: A look at linebacker

The Cardinals have used their last two first round draft selections on linebackers, yet the position still seems to be one of need.
2 days ago
Purdue defensive end...
Tyler Drake

Arizona Cardinals take DL George Karlaftis in Kiper’s 1st NFL mock draft

ESPN's Mel Kiper has the Cardinals selecting DE George Karlaftis in the first round of his first NFL mock draft of the offseason.
3 days ago
Jordan Hicks: Young ‘avatars’ helping Cardinals stop opposing tight ends