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As Season Approaches, Cardinals' Defense Must Jell Quickly

New starters have less than a month to learn scheme

Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Jordan Phillips at training camp on Friday, August 14th, 2020.
Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips is one of several new faces in the starting lineup on defense.

Vance Joseph is excited about the talent infusion the Cardinals' defense received this offseason.

Three starters – defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and edge rusher Devon Kennard – were added in free agency, linebacker Isaiah Simmons was taken with eighth pick of the draft and cornerback Robert Alford is back after missing his first season with the team due to a broken leg.

The second-year defensive coordinator has superior personnel this year compared to last, but he is also in a time crunch to stitch all the pieces together.

Unlike the offense, which welcomes DeAndre Hopkins as the only significant new piece, the defense has several key cogs to integrate. And after an offseason wiped out by COVID-19, the heavy lifting must be done in mere weeks, as the regular season opener against the 49ers looms Sept. 13.

"We have to, as a staff, find out what we do well quickly, and focus on those things," Joseph said. "Sometimes you have to go simple early, until you can figure out what you're good at defensively."

Joseph will harken back to his experience as the defensive backs coach with the Texans in 2011, when a lockout kept the players away until training camp.

The Houston defense didn't miss a beat that year, giving up a lone touchdown in its opener against the Colts.

"That lockout year was different, because you couldn't put your entire defense in," Joseph said. "You didn't have time to. So the teams early that year who played mistake-free won more games. And as the year went on, with Wade (Phillips) and those guys in Houston, we added more defense as the year went along. But the first part of the year, we stayed very simple."

Joseph said he will spend much of training camp focusing on fundamentals and making sure the team is well-conditioned.

"We have to do our best to make the practices as safe but as physical as we can make them, without losing our key players doing that," Joseph said. "Everyone is doing the same thing. It's going to be fair Week 1. They can't simulate our team speed or our defense, either. And they can't tackle to the ground constantly, having a game in 30 days. So it's going to be fair. It might not be great tackling Week 1, but our focus is having our guys in great shape to get multiple hats to the football."

Kennard had an offseason worth of virtual meetings with the coaching staff but only recently took the field with his teammates. The seven-year veteran is doing everything he can to flatten the learning curve.

"I've been very focused on getting in the playbook, watching a lot of film, visualizing as much as I can, so when the real bullets start flying and you're practicing, the game can be slowed down a little bit," Kennard said.

While the newcomers have an uphill battle, the returning players finally get the same defensive coordinator two seasons in a row for the first time since 2017. Safety Budda Baker played under James Bettcher as a rookie and Al Holcomb in his second season, and believes the continuity with Joseph's scheme could help him reach another level after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2019.

"I've been in the league for three years, been in three different defenses and played three different positions," Baker said. "It's definitely hard to get some familiarity, and this year is definitely that year where I'm excited to have that familiarity. I'm focused on taking that next step to being an even greater football player."

Joseph readily acknowledges that this year's defense is more talented than last year's group, which finished last in the NFL in total defense, and is appreciative of General Manager Steve Keim for beefing up the unit.

But a unique offseason still leaves plenty of question marks with Week 1 rapidly approaching.

"It looks better on paper," Joseph said, "but we have to go out and prove it."