Cardinals' run defense a potential issue

The Arizona Cardinals struggled against the run in Buffalo against a Bills team that came in averaging just 75 yards per game on the ground.

Throughout the offseason, the Arizona Cardinals talked openly about improving their pass-rushing capabilities.

After finishing 20th in the NFL in sacks last season, the Cardinals were desperate to find a pass-rusher who could aid a stout defensive backfield that held up well considering Arizona struggled to pressure the quarterback.

In March, Cardinals' general manager Steve Keim took a gigantic step to address Arizona's concerns, trading a second round pick and former first round selection Jonathan Cooper to acquire edge specialist Chandler Jones from the New England Patriots.

Through three games this season, Jones has already made his mark as a pass-rusher, recording three sacks including one in Buffalo before the half on Sunday. Jones has undoubtedly made the Cardinals a superior pass-rushing team this season, but at what cost?

In the Cardinals' 33-18 loss to the Bills, Arizona surrendered 208 rushing yards as Jones and his fellow defenders were manhandled in the run game by an offense that entered Sunday's contest averaging just 75 yards per game on the ground.

While Arizona's pass rush is making mild improvements, the Cardinals run defense now ranks 28th in the NFL, a season after finishing sixth in the league as the team allowed just 91.3 rushing yards per game in 2015.

A number of factors have played into Arizona's early season struggles, and it's unlikely the Cardinals will be challenged to defend the run as much as they did against Buffalo moving forward, but there are reasons for the organization to be concerned.

Jones is an every-down player as an outside linebacker, and he plays with a high pad level and struggles to anchor against the run on an alarming number of plays. On three separate occasions in the first quarter against Buffalo, including on quarterback Tyrod Taylor's 49-yard read-option scamper, Jones either lost contain or was blown off the football by a Bills' offensive lineman. 

Jones has never been known as a run-stopper, and if he's not impacting the quarterback at a much higher rate, Arizona actually stands to drop off defensively this year. Remember the old adage 'Never trade with the Patriots'? The Cardinals may end up learning that the hard way.

Still, Jones' run-stopping deficiencies aren't the only reason Arizona may struggle to defend the run this season.

The Cardinals are dedicated to using their nickel package against 11-personnel sets, and as a result of that dedication, Arizona is consistently playing with an extra defensive back on the field. Under Arians, this hasn't been a significant issue, because safety Tyrann Mathieu has typically rotated as the team's nickel cornerback and although undersized, Mathieu is a ferocious run-stopper.

This season, Mathieu is recovering from the second ACL tear of his career, and playing more as a single high safety while free agent acquisition Tyvon Branch is serving as the team's slot defender. Branch, while strong against the pass, is a liability against the run which means Arizona is consistently playing with six run stoppers in the game when he's on the field.

To compound matters, neither of the Cardinals' inside linebackers, Kevin Minter and Deone Bucannon, are elite run-stoppers. Minter has demonstrated an ability to produce decent run fits, but Bucannon is more of a pass-defender playing a hybrid role. Bucannon bulked up over the offseason and now weighs 225 pounds, but he hasn't proven overly capable against the run this season.

If not for safety Tony Jefferson, who signed a one-year contract to return to Arizona this offseason, the Cardinals' run defense may be even worse than it is at the moment. Jefferson is far and away Arizona's leading tackler, as he has 30 tackles in three games, and has been a savior for the Cardinals in many situations this season.

There's plenty of reason for concern for the Cardinals right now, but three games is still a small sample size. While Jones hasn't been a lockdown edge defender, he does show flashes of brilliance and his speed on the edge is a definite asset. Furthermore, if the team gets Mathieu to return to the slot within the next few weeks, it will almost assuredly see its production against the run improve.

Nevertheless, the Cardinals' regression against the run has become an early trend to watch, and it's an aspect that will be monitored closely, especially as the team takes on opponents from within its own division. 

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