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Cardinals' Top Plays Of 2021: Defense

A key tackle against 49ers ends up as the best of the year

The Cardinals' defense had plenty of impressive moments in 2021, finishing the season with 41 sacks, 22 forced fumbles, and 13 interceptions. Here's a look at the top six defensive plays this year, as voted on by staff.

6. J.J. Watt's first sack, in Cleveland

The situation: The Browns had a second-and-13 from the Arizona 45, trailing 23-14 with 6:39 left in the third quarter.

The play: Despite being a significant part of the Cardinals' run defense and winning many of his pass rushes, Watt had yet to record his first Cardinals sack. That changed against the Browns when quarterback Baker Mayfield scrambled left out of the shotgun to avoid the pressure before Watt caught Mayfield by the legs to generate the strip sack.

The aftermath: The Cardinals recovered the football and responded a few plays later to extend their lead, making it a two-touchdown game. The Cardinals ended up winning, 37-14, as Watt helped the run defense hold the Browns' high-powered rushing attack to 73 yards. This game turned out to be Watt's second-to-last regular-season appearance before the veteran remarkably returned from a gruesome shoulder injury in the playoffs.

5. Zach Allen's interception in Chicago

The situation: The Bears had a second-and-15 from the Chicago 43, trailing 27-14 with 7:17 left in the fourth quarter.

The play: Allen grabbed his first career interception when quarterback Andy Dalton took the snap and pump-faked left before floating a screen pass towards running back David Montgomery. Allen tipped the throw, caught it, and almost took it back for a touchdown.

The aftermath: The interception put an exclamation point on an impressive defensive performance, which produced four takeaways – three other interceptions from cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and safeties Jalen Thompson and Budda Baker.

4. Byron Murphy Jr. turns game In L.A. around with deep INT

The situation: The Rams had a second-and-3 from the Los Angeles 44, leading 3-0 with 9:10 left in the first quarter.

The play: Quarterback Matthew Stafford faked the handoff to Darrell Henderson Jr. before looking deep down the field for DeSean Jackson. Byron Murphy Jr., though, jumped in front of Jackson for his third interception of the season.

The aftermath: The interception contributed to a handful of plays the defense made in the 37-20 victory over the Rams. The franchise had not defeated their division rival since the Week 17 season finale in 2016. Murphy Jr. finished the season with four interceptions and 12 passes defended in his first season as the Cardinals' primary cornerback.

3. Chandler Jones' strip-sack vs Seattle leading to Allen TD

The situation: The Seahawks had a second-and-10 from the Seattle 25, in the opening moments of the game.

The play: Jones flirted with the possibility of ending a season without reaching double-digit sacks, but prevented that from happening in Week 18 when the linebacker knocked the ball loose from quarterback Russell Wilson during Seattle's first possession. Allen scooped the ball up and rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown.

The aftermath: Despite the 38-30 division loss, Jones finished with double-digit sacks (10.5) for the fifth time in six seasons with the Cardinals. No active player has more seasons with at least 10 sacks. Jones is heading to his fourth career Pro Bowl appearance and third since arriving in Arizona in 2016, tying Dale Meinert for the most among Cardinals linebackers.

2. Murphy picks a Jaguars flea-flicker and returns it for 6

The situation: The Jaguars had a second-and-6 from the Jacksonville 25, trailing 19-17 with 35 seconds left in the third quarter.

The play: Quarterback Trevor Lawrence gave the ball to running back Carlos Hyde, who pitched it back to Lawrence for a pass. But J.J. Watt got heavy pressure and Lawrence got rid of the ball sooner than he would have liked, trying to find tight end Jacob Hollister to complete the flea-flicker. But Byron Murphy Jr. jumped the route to pick up his second interception of the day, which the cornerback returned for a touchdown.

The aftermath: The interception shifted momentum from a potential upset to a Cardinals 31-19 victory to remain undefeated in 2021. Murphy produced his first multi-interception career game, including his first career touchdown, to help the Cardinals make that happen.

1. Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo crash into Trey Lance for goal-line stop

The situation: The 49ers had a fourth-and-goal at the Arizona 1-yard line, trailing 7-0 with 11:34 left in the second quarter.

The play: Rookie quarterback Trey Lance, making his first career start for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo, faked the handoff to Elijah Mitchell before sprinting right and diving for the end zone. But linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo slammed into him, preventing Lance from scoring.

The aftermath: The play left Simmons to be checked out by doctors after the violent collision, but the linebacker returned for the second half. The play not only stopped Lance, it became a crucial turn of events in what became a 17-10 Cardinals' victory.

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