The frustration sometimes showed on the face of Vance Joseph during his first season as Cardinals' defensive coordinator in 2019.
He dutifully stood up for his press conference each week, talking about a defense that was struggling, about Patrick Peterson's suspension and the difficult time the Cards had filling the void, the weekly issues the unit had covering tight ends.
Joseph knew building the defense he wanted would take some time. And he hoped he'd have enough.
"In your third year, it should happen," Joseph said Tuesday, the architect of a unit that leads the NFL in scoring defense and other key categories for the undefeated Cardinals. "If not, time's up obviously. In the new NFL, time is not your friend.
"I'm not totally surprised it's gotten better and better – that's the plan. That was the plan. That's why you coach. Right now, it's OK."
It's better than OK. The Cardinals give up only 16.2 points a game, tops in the NFL – and that's including a safety, a Pick-6 and a Kick-6 that were scored against the Cards when the defense wasn't on the field. They are first in both third-down and fourth-down defense, tied for third in takeaways, third in passing yards allowed, fourth in total defense and tied for fifth in sacks.
They have allowed only 40 points in the second half of games.
Statistics are just that, but is there a pride in them? "Heck yeah," safety Jalen Thompson said.
"We feel like we have set a standard for ourselves," Thompson said. "We try to go out there and meet that standard every week."
The statistic, not surprisingly, that Joseph likes the most is the victories. The Cardinals have allowed only one fourth-quarter touchdown in seven games, and that came in garbage time by the Rams, the game long decided.
"Numbers can be tricky," Joseph said. "You can move numbers around and make it look good or make it look bad. The one number we care about is winning the football game and keeping the points to a minimum and right now that is working for us."
There is a unique opportunity against the Packers Thursday. Aaron Rodgers will be the best quarterback the Cardinals will have faced, but top receiver Davante Adams – arguably the best in the game – is likely to miss after going on the Covid list. The No. 2 receiver, Allen Lazard, is unvaccinated and as a close contact of Adams went on the list as well and he will have to sit out. Their No. 3 receiver, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, is eligible to return from IR after a hamstring injury, but his status is unknown.
The Lazard news came down after Joseph spoke Tuesday, but he noted that Rodgers is actually 6-0 in games he has not had Adams, with 17 touchdowns and one interception. Rodgers expressed surprise in those stats Tuesday, but Joseph said Adams' absence might help Rodgers play a "cleaner" game because he won't find himself forcing the ball to Adams.
"That's, sometimes, dangerous for us," Joseph said.
But to a man, the Cardinals insist nothing is changing for them regardless of who plays wide receiver for the Packers. That's been their M.O. Even against the Vikings – a game in which they surrendered 33 points – the second-half defense shut down the run and helped pull out a win.
"That's the thing I expect this defense to do, with the playmakers we have everywhere," linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. "I don't really see a weak link anywhere on the defense."
That's where Joseph was trying to get to when he showed up. And even if it is Kyler Murray and the offense that dominate the headlines when the Cardinals are the topic, it is the defense that has put the Cardinals in a spot to go 8-0 for the first time in team history.
"I don't really care," safety Budda Baker said. "As long as they are saying good things about our players … even if they say bad things, I could care less. At the end of the day, when we are on that football field, it's 11 of us against 11 of them."
WATT, HOPKINS, GARCIA REMAIN SIDELINED
The Cardinals went through a light practice Tuesday but three key players – defensive lineman J.J. Watt (shoulder), wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) and center Max Garcia (Achilles) – remained as DNP. Hopkins has missed practices here and there this season but both Watt and Garcia have been out working almost every day up until this week.
Defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence (calf) also remained DNP. Linebacker Jordan Hicks (toe) was upgraded to limited, while tight end Darrell Daniels (hamstring) and linebackers Devon Kennard (shoulder), Isaiah Simmons (shoulder) and Tanner Vallejo (hand/wrist) were also limited.
Quarterback Kyler Murray, who has been full on the injury report with a right finger issue, said "I feel good" when asked about his health.
For the Packers, who estimated their list because they didn't practice, tackle Dennis Kelly was the lone DNP. Those limited were defensive tackle Kenny Clark (ankle), cornerback Kevin King (shoulder/back), defensive end Dean Lowry (ankle), and linebacker Preston Smith (oblique).
PRACTICE SQUAD MOVES
The Cardinals signed cornerback Lavert Hill and safety Javon Hagan to the practice squad Tuesday, releasing defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter.
The best photos from the Cardinals' 31-5 win over the Texans Week 7 of the 2021 NFL season.