Breaking Down the Arizona Cardinals Defense

I've watched the film. You read the articles. Find out what kind of matchups the Cardinals present for the Broncos and how the Arizona defense operates in this in-depth review. Photo: John Biever/Getty Images

I went back and watched game tape to bring you the following breakdowns of the Broncos’ opponent this Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals are one of the few remaining undefeated teams, and they match up in Denver with the 2-1 Broncos. Both teams are coming off their bye weeks.

Today, I present the Arizona Cardinals defense. Find the breakdown of the Cardinals offense here. All images from NFL Game Rewind

Defensive Linemen:

The Cardinals typically have three down linemen. Although stud end Darnell Dockett was lost for the season, NT/DE Calais Campbell is no slouch, and is a borderline star himself, with an overall grade of +9.6 on Pro Football Focus. He has played a ridiculous 94.4% of the defensive snaps this season. Although Matt Shaughnessy is technically an OLB, he plays base DE in a 2-point stance. Dan Williams (DT) and rookie Kareem Martin (DE) form the rest of the starting line. DT/DE Tommy Kelly, signed as a waiver from the Patriots, and perennially solid DE Frostee Rucker are above-average rotational D-linemen. This line is very adept at gaining pressure with what they have.


I’ve already mentioned Matt Shaughnessy, who, although technically a LB, fits best with the D-line. Pass-rushing OLBs Thomas Kelser and Sam Acho are both very underrated, and are often able to generate pressure. Ex-Steeler Larry Foote is the primary ILB, with Kevin Minter usually alongside him. Foote has played every snap this season. This unit is surprisingly impressive, despite having lost last year’s starters Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley in free agency, and Daryl Washington to suspension.

This is the position group for the Cardinals where ex-Broncos Paris Lenon and Stewart Bradley both made their bones.


While Seattle has the best 4-deep secondary in football with 3 All-Pro-caliber players (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor), Arizona has easily the deepest and most talented position group league-wide. What’s the next best thing to 3 All-Pro level DBs? Two: hundred-million-dollar-man CB Patrick Peterson and physical freak second-year S/CB Tyrann Mathieu.

But this roster doesn’t stop there – CB Antonio Cromartie, S Rashad Johnson, S/CB Tony Jefferson, CB Jerraud Powers and S Deone Bucannon combine to form a ridiculous 7-deep corps. Although Seattle grabs the headlines, it is Arizona that really deserves recognition for their talent. Even if you take into account just Peterson, Mathieu and Cromartie, those three players are arguably the most athletic at their position in the NFL. And Rashad Johnson, an unheralded centerfielder safety, has seen the field on every snap for this defense.

Defensive Tendencies and Schemes:

There is no other way to describe this defense other than fast and aggressive. They will ruthlessly go after the ball. Typically, coverage is press man or cover 1 zone. And when their backs are against the goal line, they become even more relentless. They have lots of motion pre-snap, and confuse the offense with their abilities. They rank number five in Football Outsider’s DAVE formula, are number five in yards allowed, and have surrendered a measly 15 points per game.

It is impossible to look at the defense without mentioning its versatility and flexibility. This defense is a crazy hybrid. Nominally a 3-4, it uses a lot of 4-3 principles. Arizona will use the dime package often, particularly when the quarterback spreads the field – as Colin Kaepernick did against them and as Peyton Manning is likely to do. Personnel in that package is Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, Deone Bucannon, Tony Jefferson, Rashad Johnson, and Tyrann Mathieu or Jerraud Powers. Larry Foote is the ILB.

This is effectively your base defense, people. Three down linemen, one OLB with DE responsibilities, an ILB and a S in the box. This allows the 5 other DBs to roam free in coverage.

Thomas Kelser, Frostee Rucker and Sam Acho come in along with Calais Campbell to form your pass rushing line.

A double A gap blitz. Nothing fancy here, no stunts. Just straight-up six guys rushing.

This is from the very next play. Same exact blitz scheme with the same players. The Arizona Cardinals’ defense won’t try to trick you. They will show you exactly what they’ll do and rely on their talented DBs to cover the receivers.

Later in the game…what a surprise. Same exact 6-man rush look. However, this time, Acho (#94) and Bucannon (#36) drop into middle zones, while Keiser (#53) stunts around and Jerraud Powers (off-screen) comes from the defensive right on a CB blitz.

This is what is important. Recall that Matt Shaughnessy was listed with the linemen although being a linebacker. I could have just as easily listed S Deone Bucannon with the LBs, since that’s oftentimes the role that he plays. The key to the Arizona Cardinals defense is versatility. Bucannon can play SS or LB. Campbell plays all along the line. Mathieu and Jefferson are both safeties who can play man-to-man slot corner. The personnel that this team fields is able to man up in any situation against just about any offensive lineup that can be thrown at them.

They trust their defenders to man up and play lights-out coverage. And they do. How good is the coverage?

On both of these plays, Kaepernick tucks and scrambles because he doesn’t have anything open downfield.

Key Matchup:

Although Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu take the limelight in Arizona, lost in the shuffle is the outstanding play of the two strong safeties, Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon. Jefferson played only about 12 snaps per game last season as an undrafted rookie, but had two starts and improved as the season went on. This year, he’s seen 90.4% of the snaps with a team-high 26 tackles. He has notched a PFF grade of +2.8 this season.

Meanwhile, Bucannon looks like a steal. For a rookie, he plays very well. The Cardinals like to use Deone Bucannon in the box as effectively another LB, where he is able to fight off blocks and pursue. He is patient on contain and a fairly sure tackler. Although he’s often in the box, he is almost always around the tackle, like Jefferson.

These two strong safeties are both young talents. They have the potential to make a big impact.

That said, the Cardinals defense struggled against 49ers WR Stevie Johnson on 5-10 yard out/in routes. Johnson notched 9 catches (9 targets) for 103 yards. If the Broncos can utilize a player like Wes Welker, who executes those routes to perfection, then they can take advantage of this defense.

Lucas Polglaze is the Editor-in-Chief for Mile High Huddle. Find him on Google +, Twitter, and Facebook.

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