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Arizona Cardinals' takeaway-happy defense still a revelation in 2021

Johnny Venerable Avatar
December 6, 2021

Last season, the Arizona Cardinals finished roughly middle of the pack in defensive takeaways with 21.

Through only 12 games this season, they lead the NFC in turnovers forced with 23, putting them on pace for just over 32. This takeaway revelation was again on display in the Cardinals’ 33-22 road victory in Chicago on Sunday over the horrendous Bears.

“I thought our defense played tremendous, creating those takeaways, giving us short fields on offense, being able to capitalize a few times,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

In a game in which Kingsbury and the Cardinals were attempting to ease back their franchise quarterback following a three-game absence, Arizona’s defense again rose to the occasion led by an emerging young core of star players. Three members of Arizona’s secondary secured timely interceptions of Bears quarterback Andy Dalton. The trio of Byron Murphy, Budda Baker, and Jalen Thompson continue to be the backbone of the Cardinals’ back-seven defensively, which each member no older than 25.

“It was pretty slippery out there,” said Baker when asked about the inclement weather conditions. “We knew the ball was gonna be up in the air. We knew some guys might not catch the ball all the way because of the rain. As DBs, as a defense, we were just trying to get into the ball. It shows everyone’s mentality to get to the football.”

The renewed mentality has eased concerns regarding a Cardinals defense that is still struggling to stop the run. Bears running back David Montgomery was effective on the ground, with 90 rushing yards and a touchdown. For all the things the Cardinals do well on defense, their inability to consistently stop the run is a wart on an otherwise loaded team.

“Once we were able to get a couple (turnovers), get a lead and we knew they were gonna throw, that was the thought process (forcing Dalton to throw),” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “In the beginning, it was more to stop the bleeding of the run. They were popping a couple. We made some good adjustments. We were able to stop ’em early and force them to throw.”

This bend but don’t break defensively philosophy has been a staple of Vance Joseph’s unit all season, but it only works when the team is racking up turnovers by the bunches. There was no better example of this than in the first quarter, where the Cardinals were the benefactors of two Dalton interceptions. What immediately followed were two touchdown scoring drives by Murray and company which quickly gave the Cardinals a double-digit lead they never relinquished.

This remains the formula for the Cardinals to win in 2021. They are virtually unbeatable when the offense is allowed to start fast (like Sunday) and the defense can play with a lead. That’s how the turnover-hungry Cardinals can feast on those who remain in their way.

When the formula goes awry, like against the Packers, the Cardinals’ defense can become vulnerable. As great as they’ve been this season, linebackers Jordan Hicks and Isaiah Simmons aren’t built to consistently stop the run. Hicks is somewhat limited athletically, while Simmons remains an elite coverage player only. Combine that with the team’s lack of a true difference maker on the defensive line, and it’s easy to see why Cardinals defensive backs routinely lead the the team in tackles on a given week.

At the end of the day, none of this matters if Joseph’s unit continues to make opposing offenses uncomfortable. The team’s combination of a fearsome pass rush, led by Chandler Jones and Markus Golden, and an opportunistic secondary is more than enough to catapult the Cardinals deep into January football.

Quick Hits

  1. In his first live action since suffering a high-ankle sprain in late October against the Packers, Murray looked like much of his old self. Given the adverse weather conditions, Murray was only asked to throw the ball 15 times. Durning his postgame press conference, Kingsbury alluded to a modified game plan given the presence of rain. Regardless, Murray was still electric on all four of his touchdowns scored. Kudos to the Cardinals for allowing their young signal caller a chance to properly heal before rushing him back into action.
  2. Speaking of healed superstars, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins also returned Sunday in a big way against the Bears. The All-Pro pass catcher made quick work of his two targets, hauling in the game’s first score on a 20-yard touchdown. Like Murray, Hopkins appeared to progress through the game with no limitations.
  3. With two sacks on Sunday, Jordan Hicks now has a career high (and counting) in quarterback takedowns this season (five). For those wondering when first round linebacker Zaven Collins may see the field, it likely will be once Hicks is out of Arizona. The 29 year old, who was thought to be on the outs with the team this past summer, still calls the Cardinals defense every Sunday. It’s fair to wonder, with a year remaining on his contract in 2022, if the Cardinals can truly afford to move on from Hicks this offseason?
  4. Perhaps no singular player has stepped up in the absence of J.J. Watt more than fellow defensive linemen Zach Allen. The third-year player out of Boston College secured his first career interception Sunday after sniffing out a botched screen attempt by Dalton. Allen is routinely seen conversing with Watt on the sideline in a likely attempt to pick his brain on the position.
  5. Speaking of Watt, the stud pass rusher was seen leading many of the defensive drills prior to kickoff. Watt is noticeably without serious limitations to his upper body, which leads most to believe he’ll be returning at some point later this season.
  6. While he doesn’t receive a ton of notoriety given the position, punter Andy Lee’s 58-yard bomb that was downed at the 2-yard line was a sight to behold. A free agent to be, the Cardinals would be foolish to allow the veteran to walk this offseason.
  7. Another week, another touchdown for James Conner who now has 15 TDs. Leading the Cardinals on Sunday in both rushing and receiving, Conner has become a key cog in an Arizona offense that can beat you in a multitude of ways.
  8. Following the win, the Cardinals are an astounding 7-0 on the road this season with all seven victories secured by double digits. Kingsbury was practically at a loss for words when attempting to describe the team’s road success this season.
  9. With an eye on next week’s pivotal Monday night matchup against the L.A. Rams, the Cardinals could see the return of offensive standouts Chase Edmonds and Justin Pugh. Given all the adversity faced by this team earlier this year, the Cardinals look to be one of the healthier contenders as the season enters the stretch run.

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