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After Substantial Progress, Cardinals' Defense Wants More

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph proved accurate in promising improvement

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph communicates with his players during offseason work.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph communicates with his players during offseason work.

In 2019, Vance Joseph had to grin and bear it.

On a near-weekly basis, the Cardinals' defensive coordinator was pelted with questions about miscues during his Thursday press conference with reporters.

It was a year to forget, as the defense ended up allowing the most yards (402 per game) and the 28th-most points (27.6 per game) in the NFL in his first season in charge.

"It takes courage to live through this," Joseph said after a particularly rough outing that December against the Rams. "It's hard times. We're going to get it fixed, and once it's fixed, no one remembers these times. But right now, it's tough. If you're not strong-willed and you don't have courage, you can't fix it.

"We have a plan here, and right now it's the first year of the plan. It wasn't going to be easy. That's why we're here, right? It wasn't fixed (by the previous coaching staff). That's why we're here. We're trying to fix it, and we will."

A year-and-a-half later, Joseph looks prophetic.

The Cardinals' defense made a drastic improvement last season, ascending to No. 12 in the NFL in points allowed per game. According to Football Outsiders' defensive efficiency ratings, it was a top-10 defensive unit, 6.6% better than average.

While the defense lost mainstays like cornerback Patrick Peterson and outside linebacker Haason Reddick in free agency, Joseph believes a combination of scheme familiarity and talent should allow the 2021 group to take another step forward.

"Our first year we came here, it was a work-in-progress, as far as personnel and as far as guys learning the scheme," Joseph said during minicamp. "We saw a big change about four or five games (left) in that season. We played really good football, and it really carried over to last year. Last year was better, but it wasn't good enough. We have some areas we need to work on still. But going into our third year with our staff and most of our mainstay players, we should be a lot better."

A group light on talent and depth in 2019 now has three perennial Pro Bowlers – safety Budda Baker, outside linebacker Chandler Jones and defensive end J.J. Watt – leading the way. It has solid veterans like outside linebacker Markus Golden, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and cornerback Malcolm Butler.

Third-year defensive backs Byron Murphy and Jalen Thompson have breakout potential, while the team's past two first-round picks – Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins – hope to become a lethal pairing at inside linebacker.

"We're excited," Joseph said. "We've got a bunch of guys that we've added. They're all fully engaged, good team guys. It's been fun to coach this group because they're so into each other and what we're doing with the scheme."

The Cardinals have an offensive-minded head coach and a dazzling talent at quarterback, so it's natural that attention drifts to Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and Co.

However, the defense was more efficient than the offense last season, per Football Outsiders, and Murray's rookie contract has allowed GM Steve Keim to allocate $104.8 million in cap space to the defense in 2021, which is the fifth-most in the NFL.

While Murray’s progress will ultimately determine the Cardinals' ceiling in 2021, another solid defensive campaign can give the team a high floor.

"It seems like everyone is locked in and bought in to what we have, and what we all want," Simmons said. "It seems like we all have a common goal out of this. Everybody is focused and striving to be the best so we can get where we want to get."