New era notes: It’s next-man-up time for the Arizona Cardinals defensive line

Sep 19, 2023, 3:10 PM

TEMPE — Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker’s injured reserve stint is the big storyline out of the desert heading into the thick of Week 3 prep for the Dallas Cowboys.

The safety’s absence, however, is far from the only factor impacting defensive coordinator Nick Rallis’ unit, as injuries along the defensive line have thinned out Arizona’s depth up front, severely hindering its rotation.

After four Cardinals linemen logged no more than 41 snaps (58% of available defensive reps) in Week 1, two posted snap counts of 50 (74%) this past Sunday while three saw fewer than 19.

Heading into Week 2’s loss to the New York Giants, the Cardinals knew they were going to be without starter L.J. Collier, who was placed on injured reserve with a biceps injury that could linger beyond the four-game threshold before returning.

On game day, defensive lineman Leki Fotu was ruled out with a shoulder issue picked up the week prior, while linemate Carlos Watkins left the matchup with an arm injury that is still being evaluated by the team.

With those three dealing with their respective injuries, Arizona currently has just three healthy defensive linemen — Jonathan Ledbetter, Kevin Strong, Dante Stills — on the roster. It also has practice squad members Eric Banks, who played Sunday, and Ben Stille that can be elevated if need be. Jacob Slade was also added to the practice squad on Tuesday.

Despite all the moving parts affecting the room, Rallis remains confident in the players he has available.

“Everybody up front who has a jersey on game day, you want them to get a good amount of snaps,” Rallis said Tuesday. “You want to stay fresh up front.

“Obviously with injuries, guys have to step up and play well and that’s one thing I appreciate with our roster is I feel like we have really good depth, especially up front, where I’m comfortable with whoever’s stepping in there for guys that are out. I feel good with the guys we got to go out there and play good on first, second down, pass downs, all of it.”

Among those players needing to take that next step is the rookie Stills.

Getting his first taste of regular season action in Week 3, Stills finished with two tackles across 18 snaps (26%).

If Watkins or Fotu are forced to miss any additional time, there is a real possibility Stills moves up the depth chart and into a starting role when the Dallas Cowboys come to town in Week 3.

“He’s grown just being assignment-sound,” Rallis said of the 2023 sixth-round pick. “He’s a guy that we can rely on out there in the run game and in the pass game. He has the tools to become a really good player.

“He knows he has to continue to make strides, but I’m excited. He has to step into a big role right now and I believe he will continue to get better week in and week out.”

Still a work in progress

For Cardinals offensive coordinator Drew Petzing, there was a lot of good to take away from the first half operation as a whole. Running back James Conner shouldered the load, quarterback Joshua Dobbs looked improved, Arizona pass catchers were getting open and a 20-0 advantage at halftime is never a bad thing.

But unless that scoreboard read in favor of Arizona at the end of the night, which it didn’t in Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the Giants, there’s still plenty to accomplish for the unit.

“This was my message in the room is our goal is always to score more points than they do and we didn’t do that,” Petzing said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, we have to be better on offense. We got to find ways to score more points.

“Yes, very encouraged by the way we played and certainly did things better than we did in Week 1, but we need to continue to grow and continue to improve. That’s always going to be our mindset really win or lose.”

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New era notes: It’s next-man-up time for the Arizona Cardinals defensive line