Super Bowl 51 Contenders: Arizona Cardinals, Part 2. The Defense and Special Teams

Continuing on from yesterdays post, this will preview the Arizona Cardinals for the upcoming 2016 season. The Cardinals are one of the hot favourites to lift the Vince Lombardy Trophy as they have not only a talented Offensive but an incredibly talented Defensive squad. In 2015 the Cardinals Defence gave up the 5th least amount of yards, 7th least amount of points and generated the 2nd most turnovers. The Cardinals Defense boasts stars Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and the ‘Honey Badger’ Tyrann Mathieu. The Cardinals will hope that following the addition of young talent in their front seven and a veteran signing in the secondary, that Defense can improve on their dominant showing last season and challenge for a place among the League’s best Defenses.

The Front Seven

The Arizona Cardinals Front Seven had a strong 2015 season as they gave up the 6th least amount of rushing yards, however, struggled in sack totals as they finished joint 20th with only 36.0 sacks. The Cardinals had a powerful Defensive Line in 2015 and have added a potentially game changing talent through the draft this year where they took a chance on the polarising prospect Robert Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche who had a bad boy reputation coming out of College is a thick and powerful Defensive Tackle/ End who also possesses quick twitch movement and was considered a top-10 talent. The Cardinals will hope that Nkemdiche can progress quickly as a rookie and contribute in rotation with Corey Peters and sophomore Rodney Gunter.

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The Cardinals play a base 3-4 Defence and their star man along their Defensive Front is clearly Left Defensive End Calais Campbell. Campbell is a long and strong Defensive End who is effective at containing the run and also contributes in the pass rush in terms of eating up blocks and opening lanes for Linebackers. Despite Campbell having his lowest sack production in 2015 since his rookie campaign he was Pro Football Focus’s third highest rate 3-4 Defensive End in terms of run-stop percentage. But with the addition of Nkemdiche along the Line and Chandler Jones at Linebacker, Head Coach Bruce Arians and Defensive Co-ordinator James Bettcher will hope that Campbell can post his first double digit sack total in his career and elevate the play of all those around him. The Cardinals will most likely have Frostee Rucker lining up at Right Defensive End with Ed Stinson adding depth along the Line.

The Cardinals clearly identified their lack of a pass rush as the key area of improvement in the 2016 off-season. Their signing of New England Patriot Outside Linebacker Chandler Jones was an attempt at addressing this issue. The Cardinals traded Guard Jonathan Cooper (their 2013, 1st round pick) and a 2nd round pick in the 2016 Draft. 2015 was Chandler’s best year in term of sack production as he proved he is among one of the Leagues best at getting after opposing QB’s as he put up 12.5 sacks on the year (5th most in the NFL). He is quick round the edge and uses his quick hands and every inch of his tall 6 foot 5 frame as he accelerates quickly round the corner and blows by NFL tackles. Jones is also highly effective in jostling with Tackles and angling them to the outside in order to force opposing Running Backs inside and towards Linebackers and Defensive Tackles.

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Jones will headline Arizona’s Linebacking corps, while Markus Golden has a lot of promise heading into his sophomore year. Golden was arguably the best rookie edge rusher in the NFL last season and with Campbell and Jones demanding attention and opposing teams blocking assignments, Golden will have plenty of opportunities to use leverage and plague terror in opponents back fields. The Cardinals also deploy relatively small Inside Middle Linebackers and the their projected starter for 2016 continues this trend with Deoneo Bucannon the former Safety clocking in at just 6 foot 1 and 220lb. The spot alongside Bucannon is open heading into training camp as newcomer Donald Butler, formerly of the Chargers, will compete against Kevin Minter. The Cardinals still have Daryl Washington on the roster however, he has not suited up since an indefinite suspension in May 2014 and although eligible to be reinstated, the Team have not heard from him. Washington is a talented Linebacker and once a rising star in the NFL, however, substance abuse suspensions have derailed his career and it looks like the Cardinals will again have to do without him. Although the Cardinals have talent at the Middle Linebacker position, it is the weakest position in the team and therefore the Cardinals will hope that the competition between Donald Butler and Kevin Minter will push both players to elevate their level of play in 2016. In terms of Outside Linebacker, the Cardinals also have considerable depth and clearly have a talented Front Seven that will prove difficult to put up high rushing totals against.

The Secondary

Outside of the Cardinals receiving corps, their Secondary probably ranks as their second strongest unit. Patrick Peterson headlines the defensive backs as the lockdown Corner travels all game long shadowing opposing teams no.1 Receiver’s. Patrick Peterson is regularly regarded as one of the best shutdown corners in the NFL and has been to Pro Bowl every year since coming into the League in 2011. The only time Pat P appeared to take a step back was in the 2014 season where he struggled with his weight and was shortly after the season diagnosed with Diabetes. Pat P is one of the few corners alongside Darrelle Revis who no matter what game will line up opposite the opposing teams best Wide-out and follow them all game long.

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With Pat P occupying the no.1 Corner slot, the Cardinals have options at no.2 and at the slot. The Cardinals have a ton at options at Cornerback with rookies Harlan Miller (undrafted) and Brandon Williams (3rd round) hoping to make the final 53 and compete for the slot Corner position. The Cardinals have also brought in two 2012 5th round pick who are both NFL journeymen to compete for a spot at Corner. Both Shaun Prater and Asa Jackson at 5 foot 10 will both likely be competing for the slot Corner position. The Cardinals also have former Cowboys 2008 1st round pick Mike Jenkins and tall veteran Corner Alan Ball who have both been brought in for depth and to push 3 time Pro-Bowler Justin Bethel at the no.2 Cornerback position. The Cardinals clearly have a number of talented Corners who Bruce Arians will hope can tie up Receivers in the backend in order to allow Arizona’s Front Seven more time in the front end to get home and sack the Quarterback.

Apart from Patrick Peterson Tyrann Mathieu is arguably the biggest star on Arizona’s Defence and was having a Defensive Player of the Year calibre season in 2015 before tearing his ACL in Week 15. The former college bad boy who was booted off his LSU college team for drug usage is a highly energetic and extremely talented Free Safety who appears all over the field as he covers the entire field in the blink of an eye. Before his 2015 season came to an abrupt end, Mathieu had already registered 89 tackles, 1.0 sack and 5.0 interceptions. He is a disruptive ball hawk and a proficient tackler who surveys the field from the Free Safety position and has a habit of appearing at the point of danger at exactly the right moment. Mathieu will most likely line up alongside who ever wins out the Strong Safety position during the pre-season. The Cardinals have some talented options at Strong Safety with newly signed Tyvon Branch going head to head with the teams long time third-Safety Ton Jefferson and D. J. Swearinger who was signed off the practice squad last season following Mathieu’s injury. The Cardinals also signed Chris Clemons following Mathieu’s injury last season, however, he will most likely battle for a back-up role and could be a training camp cut.

 

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The Cardinals have a top 5 Defense and with the addition of the highly talented Robert Nkemdiche through the draft and the signing of Linebacker Chandler Jones. The Cardinals will hope that these new signings will improve on their pass rush that proved lack lustre in 2015. The Cardinals have playmakers in the Secondary and they will hope that they can get 16 games out of the ‘Honey Badger’ and that the competition at the open Corner spots will cause everyone to bring their A-game in 2016. If the Cardinals can keep it tight in the back end and cause opposing Quarterbacks to hold the ball and go through the progressions, it will greatly benefit any pass rush that Arizona may have in 2016.

Special Teams

The Cardinals will enter the 2016 season with both their Punter and Kicker firmly locked in to start week 1. Punter Drew Butler will start for the Cardinals at Punter and has a career average of 42.9 yards per punt. The Cardinals also have a safe option at Kicker with Chandler Catanzaro having an 89.1% career Field Goal percentage, with his 90.3% in 2015 placing him as the 8th most accurate Placekicker last season. Patrick Peterson will most likely return as the Cardinals primary Punt Returner as he offers a Safe pair of hands combined with explosive speed. Yet the Cardinals Kick Returner could likely be an open spot heading into Training Camp. Rookie David Johnson was extremely impressive at returning kicks in 2015, however, if he has an increased role in the Cardinals Offence then Bruce Arians is unlikely to want to see his starting Running Back bringing back Kicks. Tyrann Mathieu also returned Kicks at LSU but again Arians will be unlikely to want one of his star players back there bringing back Kick offs. It is unclear exactly who will start at Kick return and it could be the case where David Johnson is the week 1 starter but if he continues his development and performs well early on in 2016, then the Cardinals will have to look around for a new Kick Returner.

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The schedule:

The Arizona Cardinals were always going to have a difficult schedule playing in the NFC West as they are forced to play Seattle twice, the 49ers who will now be led by Chip Kelly and the Los Angeles Rams who only seem to turn up for divisional games. Based on 2015 records, the Cardinals will have the tied 7th most difficult schedule in 2016 and will be hard pressed to improve on last seasons 13-3. The Panthers will have four difficult divisional games against Seattle and Los Angeles as well as tough asks in playing @ Carolina in week 8, @Minnesota in week 11 and @Atlanta in week 12. I predict the Cardinals will go 12-4 in 2016, losing week 3 @ Buffalo and week 8 @ Carolina. I have them at 6-2 heading into the bye and will split the two away games against Minnesota and Atlanta and then the final two weeks away at Seattle and Los Angeles. The Cardinals have a difficult schedule, however, they will make it into the playoffs most likely in a Wild Card spot if the Seahawks can go 13-3 in 2016, but they have the strength in depth in order to go far in the Play Offs this year and ultimately push for a spot in the Super Bowl.

The skinny:

In the past week the Arizona Cardinals have handed 1-year contract extensions to Quarterback Carson Palmer and Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald. They have also tied up the ultra talented ‘Honey Badger’ Tyrann Mathieu’s to a 5-year $62.5 million deal with $40 million guaranteed. The Cardinals have signed Palmer up until 2018, however at 36 years old it is clear that 2016 could very well be his last season in which he could win games through his performance alone for the Cardinals. Yet this incredibly talented and deep roster means that Palmer will not have to perform at an MVP level in order for the Cardinals to reach the Super Bowl. With playmakers all over the field on Offence and Defense who could mask any Quarterback play deficiency such as the Denver Broncos did last season, 2016 could finally be the year that the Arizona Cardinals hoist the Vince Lombardy Trophy.

– Tom Like

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