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AZ Cardinals: what changes need to be made

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Sunday was tough. The Arizona Cardinals came into week four fresh off a loss against a Detroit Lions team they should have beat in week three. Week four wasn’t a must win game, but it was a need to win game against a Christian McCaffrey-less Carolina Panthers. The Cardinals shockingly looked terrible the entire game losing 31-21. The loss was painful for the team and their fans leaving many asking what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals to get back on track?

The week four loss highlighted a lot of unexpected weaknesses for the Cardinals making the loss a bit more brutal. It was an entire regression across all aspects of the team. The playcalling was terrible, the execution on defense was atrocious, and the offense was out of sync at best.

Their week three loss to the Lions had two excuses, if you’re into excuses. Matt Stafford might be the most underrated QB in the NFL, and every team has a rough week. There weren’t any built in excuses with the Panther’s.

Even if Christian McCaffrey had played, the Cardinals needed to show the ability to contain elite talent. They play in the same division as Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf, and Raheem Mostert, to name a few. They needed to show it took more than one elite talent to beat them. But McCaffrey didn’t play, so anything less than a resounding win would have been considered bad.

Image Credit: RevengeoftheBirds.com
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Missed opportunities

Week four was supposed to be a lot of things for the Arizona Cardinals. It was an opportunity for them to show resilience and their ability to bounce back. It represented an opportunity for them to improve to 3-1 keeping them tied for second in the gauntlet of the NFC West. And it was an opportunity for them to showcase improvement on defense and offense. Instead, it was an ugly showing that completely killed the momentum they had built in the first two weeks.

These ugly losses only mean one thing – the Cardinals need to change something. The expectations were a huge leap forward in 2020. But what we expected was not what we got the last two weeks. What happened? And what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals going forward?

The defense

Through the first two weeks, there was a buzz brewing in the desert about the new Arizona defense. They weren’t elite, but they were showing as viable for a team in early talks of making the playoffs with a potential MVP quarterback in Kyler Murray. Despite their early success, these last two losses have shown the defense is far from what we thought.

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Injuries do matter. Losing Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson, Devon Kennard and an injury limited Dre Kirkpatrick is tough. But depth on defense appeared to be one of Keim’s offseason victories, until you realize he ignored depth in the secondary.

Isaiah Simmons has been non-existent playing on a total of 44 snaps the entire season. Throw on top of that an under-performing cornerback room and the Cardinals situation looks rough at best.

Isaiah Simmons

A growing concern for Isaiah Simmons and why he wasn’t playing has been brewing. According to Kliff Kingsbury and Vance Joseph, Simmons had missed too many snaps due to missing rookie camp, OTA’s, and pre-season games. He just needed some more time to learn the defense. That argument sort of made sense. Until week four.

What changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals? Playing their top 10 pick Isaiah Simmons.
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Isaiah Simmons is one of those players that is too talented to be a bust. His floor is solid performer. Why? Because he’s a freak of nature physically and he’s intelligent. He’s far more gifted than Haason Reddick who was considered a bust until his breakout 2020.

You can’t coach speed, and Simmons has speed. His 40 yard time of 4.39 was faster than Christian McCaffrey’s who clocked in at 4.48. He’s lauded for his closing speed, and that he can cover sideline to sideline. His positional flexibility in Clemson wouldn’t translate entirely to an NFL defense with the exception of letting him flex between ILB and Safety. But his ability to perform at an elite college level across nearly every position on defense shows his ability to learn and translate. He can learn at a high level. And he can execute at a high level. That’s why he was taken at eighth overall, which many considered a drop in the draft for a player being talked as high as going third overall.

Read more about why Isaiah Simmons is a freak athlete here.

Which is why Isaiah Simmons must start playing.

Development

If the excuse was he needed snaps, that excuse no longer exists. Against Carolina the defense gave up 444 yards of offense and allowed Carolina to convert 7 of 11 third downs. One of the four third down stops resulted in Carolina converting on fourth down. The defense looked entirely outmatched especially in the secondary. And being outmatched by the Panthers is not a good look.

The most frustrating part of that loss was watching the defense get torched by a weak offense, with Simmons somehow only getting nine snaps. That was the perfect game to get your rookie on the field to boost his snap count. Instead, Vance Joseph elected to play his practice squad and they looked every bit of a practice squad.

There was no reason not to play Simmons. It was a glaring missed opportunity.

Yes, not having Budda Baker was a huge impact. But the performance from the secondary was awful. Curtis Riley looked lost leaving it hard to imagine Simmons would have been worse.

By the end of the game it became obvious. Either something is terribly wrong, or Simmons is being hampered by Vance Joseph. Vance Joseph represents what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals if they want to grow this season. And while some may be clamoring for his termination, we’re not there yet.

The only way to determine if it’s a Simmons issue or a Joseph issue is to let Simmons play a full game against a weak Jets offense. Even if he looks bad in the first quarter, he needs the entire game. The reasons for playing him are simple – the team needs him, his development needs it, and the fans deserve to see him.

The defense needs him

Devon Kennard missed week four and has been limited in practice all week. Budda Baker is coming back after surgery kept him out for one week, and Jalen Thompson just started practicing after an injury put him on IR in week one. There are needs at linebacker and at safety. There’s also a need at cornerback, but we’ll touch on that later. Regardless, the team needs him more than they’re willing to admit publicly.

Week five also represents another great opportunity to develop your eight overall pick. The weak New York Jets are a great team for a talented rookie to get his first full game, and represents an opportunity to show he can play in the NFL. The Jets are not what anyone would consider a good offense even before it was announced that Sam Darnold won’t be playing. And getting Simmons reps in a live game is exactly what Vance Joseph has said is needed. Week five represents that opportunity and Simmons’s development requires it.

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Finally, Arizona Cardinals fans have been clamoring to see Simmons since he was drafted. They lauded him as a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. He was the missing piece to the puzzle. The above Brett Kollmann breakdown is the best analysis I’ve seen for Simmons abilities and the role he can play in the Arizona defense.

If he’s a bust or struggling, the fans deserve to see it for themselves. The odds of him being a bust are low, but the worst case scenario the Cardinals show why he needs more time. Best case scenario he plays up to expectations and solves a big problem for the Cardinals defense. The fans deserve the opportunity to see where Simmons stands.

How has he done?

In the limited snaps, Simmons has played he’s been mostly good, and sometimes bad. The Raheem Mostert touchdown has haunted him since week one, but one play in week one for a rookie with no pre-season shouldn’t be the defining moment for how good he can become. I watched one analyst argue Simmons had been making too many mistakes to be a starter. The analyst then proceeded to talk about how all of those mistakes weren’t actually Simmons’s fault. Simmons was doing what he was supposed to do, but the other players were out of position. Yet, somehow he concluded Simmons is a bust.

Isaiah Simmons is not a bust. He just isn’t playing and it’s time that changed. Vance Joseph needs to take off the training wheels and let the extremely talented Simmons run around with his lightning speed hitting people. There’s too much to gain and not enough to lose for him not to be playing, and any conversation about what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals on defense has to include Isaiah Simmons.

Cornerbacks

Overshadowed by late game stops in week one, the Arizona corners have been underperforming. Cardinals cornerbacks have actually been really bad all season, but no one was talking about it because they were wrapped up in how good Kyler Murray had been. After the loss to Carolina, it became clear to everyone that our cornerback situation was a mess. Patrick Peterson looked very slow. Scary slow.

What changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals? Having viable cornerback play is a good start.
Image Source: ArizonaSports.com
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Robby Anderson ended the game with 11 targets and eight receptions for 99 yards. Many of those receptions had more space than there should have been. Patrick Peterson’s career was built on his man cover prowess, but against Carolina he looked incapable. The speed of the receivers was a hurdle Peterson couldn’t overcome making this a potentially big issue especially considering the speed of the Rams, 49’ers, and Seahawks offenses. Through week two, Peterson had logged a 46.1 PFF grade. In week three and four, he looked even worse.

Dre Kirkpatrick was brought in to replace Robert Alford, and to this point, has been less than stellar. His PFF grade tallied to a poor 44.2, and he’s been battling injuries including being placed in concussion protocol.

In fact, the best corner on the team has been Byron Murphy. And he hasn’t been great either.

Byron Murphy

On a defense that features veteran corner Dre Kirkpatrick and three time All Pro Patrick Peterson, your CB3 contributing the best production is a big concern. Locking in the secondary in a league and division that features elite passing offenses was an important aspect for Cardinals growth. And it’s regressing.

The solution to this problem is a bit scary, too. There is no depth at the position which means Byron Murphy will continue to play on the outside. Isaiah Simmons could play well in the slot to replace him. But Byron Murphy was asked to play on the outside in 2019 and it didn’t go well. Which means fans need to keep their fingers crossed that Patrick Peterson just needed four weeks to get the juices flowing and limbered up.

For as great as Patrick Peterson has been for Arizona, he deserves the chance to chalk these last four weeks up as his “pre-season”. But “pre-season” is over. Patrick Peterson must improve if this team wants to rebound.

What changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals on defense? Quite a bit especially including cornerbacks. And they don’t need to be the best defense to compete. Seattle has shown that to be true. They do have to be at least average. And without a capable cornerback room, average is unachievable.

Read more about how the Arizona defense can contribute to a playoff berth here.

Honorable mention

Honorable mention for needing improvement is Chandler Jones. One of the most elite pass rushers in football has hauled in one sack, seven QB hits, and one tackle for a loss.

What changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals on defense? Chandler Jones doing Chandler Jones things.
Image Source: RevengeoftheBirds.com
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Granted, the defensive line has improved with six sacks and 27 tackles in four games, but Chandler Jones controls the line of scrimmage for the Cardinals defense. And anytime an offense can keep him at bay is a victory for that offense. Arizona needs to see Chandler Jones return to form. The answer for what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals include getting their elite pass rusher back.

The offense

Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins had developed a rapport that projects for elite production. Hopkins has been targeted 46 times, with 39 completions for 397 yards and a touchdown. The remaining Cardinals receivers? 76 targets, 43 receptions, 430 yards, and three touchdowns.

TLDR; the passing game was primarily one dimensional.

What changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals in their passing game?
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So what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals? Using Larry Fitzgerald consistently. Spreading the offense to incorporate future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald in a predominant role supported by Andy Isabella, Christian Kirk is vitol. And getting Kenyan Drake and Dan Arnold involved in the passing game is the final key that could unlock one of the most prolific offenses in football. DeAndre will always do DeAndre things. But the offense can not afford to be a one trick show.

So what happened in week three and four? The offense became even more one dimensional. Larry Fitzgerald became a complete non factor in the passing game over the course of the last two losses.

Larry Fitzgerald

Against the Lions, Fitzgerald had one reception for 0 yards. After the week three game Kliff Kingsbury said, “He’ll have a prominent role moving forward. It was just a bad day of playcalling by me. I didn’t get him the ball.”

“He’ll have a prominent role moving forward. It was just a bad day of playcalling by me. I didn’t get him the ball.”

Kliff Kinsbury

The headlines didn’t change much after week four. Against Carolina, he had two receptions for four yards. Kliff said:

“He’s a tremendous player, one of the best to ever play the game, and we all know we have to do a better job getting him the football.”

Kliff Kingsbury

Broken record much?

However, Kliff is 100% correct. Larry Fitzgerald must be used more. How this became an issue in back to back weeks is a problem. And the bigger problem is the teams it came against in the Lions and Panthers. The Arizona Cardinals get one more chance against a weak team in the Jets. After that it’s the Cowboys on Monday Night Football, the Seahawks twice, the Rams twice, San Francisco, Buffalo, and New England. That’s eight of 11 weeks facing great football teams playing great football. The road gets rough and Arizona is now playing from behind.

DeAndre Hopkins

Despite DeAndre’s hot start, he still needs Larry Fitzgerald involved more. The biggest reason being that Kyler and DeAndre haven’t been connecting on deep passes nearly enough. If Fitzgerald were to be used as the legitimate slot threat that he is, you may get a few less looks to Hopkins, but you’re also opening up the opportunity for Hopkins to be a bigger deep threat. And Hopkins is one of the best deep threats in the NFL.

With Fitzgerald out of the picture, Hopkins and Murray have been limited to short out-routes and screen passes. It’s like putting a regulator on a Roadster.

Kyler Murray did throw for three touchdowns and completed 24 of 31 passes, but he only totaled 133 passing yards and now holds the record for the least amount of passing yards on 24 completions in NFL hsitory. The entire game was dink and sink passing. For an air raid offense with one of NFL’s biggest deep threats and a quarterback who excelled throwing deep in 2019, the Cardinals are truly wasting one of their strengths. Much like they’re wasting Simmons.

So what changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals on offense? Getting Larry Fitzgerald involved. As soon as Fitzgerald becomes a factor, the offense is back on track.

Image Source: AZCentral.com
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The prognosis

The season isn’t even halfway over. There really is no reason to panic as a Cardinals fan. The expectations have been high the entire offseason. Beating the 49’ers in week one on their way to a 2-0 start contributed to that hype. And while those wins were huge, they masked glaring weaknesses.

The good news is these issues are all fixable. Larry Fitzgerald getting more targets is highly doable, playing Isaiah Simmons is highly doable, and a better Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones is viable. But it must happen against the Jets.

Joe Flacco will be the quarterback which is good news for a Cardinals defense that needs to pick up a win before Dallas. Even with Darnold behind center, the Jets are 0-4 and #TankforTrevor has already trended for them on Twitter.

Nothing about the Jets passing game has looked elite. Nothing about their defense has even been good. The Jets are mired in injuries, and have a coach who was expected to be fired before Bill O’Brien.

In order for the Cardinals to turn their season around they must win this game. With an expanded playoffs, they have the talent to get in. But a loss to the Jets would damage morale, the fan base, and leave massive concern going into one of the NFL’s most difficult schedules. What changes need to be made for the Arizona Cardinals and their ability to make those changes will determine whether they are still rebuilding, or ready for the next step. And it starts this Sunday.

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