The numbers for the Cardinals defense jump off the page with the 2021 season seven games old:
First in points per game, third in net passing yards per game, second in average yards per pass play, fourth in sacks per pass play, tied for fourth in first downs, tied for third in takeaways, third in turnover ratio (plus-8), first in red-zone scoring (61.1%).
Yes, they are 18th in rushing yards and 31st in yards per rush, which surely could be a factor facing the Packers Thursday night.
However, what is most impressive is how the team’s defense has gotten teams off the field on third and fourth down. The Cardinals are No. 1 in the NFL in both third- and fourth-down defense.
Opponents have converted only 23-of-80 attempts on third down (28.8%) and 4-for-16 on fourth down (25%). The latter figure is actually 20% (3-for-15) against the team’s defense because one of the successes was on a fake punt in the season opener against Tennessee.
In the last three games against San Francisco, Cleveland and Houston, those teams were 8-for-34 (23.5%) on third down and 2-for-11 (18.2%) on fourth down.
This past Sunday, the Texans were 2-for-13 on third down and the 13 plays totaled 32 yards. The 11 failures netted 14 yards.
Linebacker Isaiah Simmons said, “Honestly, it all starts on first down. Their objective is to get into second-and-short so they could run the ball, they can throw the ball. So controlling first down you keep them in second-and-longs. It makes it easy for us because then we can let our pass rushers go, let our cover guys cover and when the game is like that, I feel like it's in our favor.”
The average yards to go on third down for Houston Sunday was 8.7 and five of the 13 were 12 yards or more.
Linebacker Jordan Hicks said he believes the third-down success is “a combination of guys doing their job. The execution has to be there. And that's where we've taken the next step on is our execution. But I also think it's schematically. VJ (defensive coordinator Vance Joseph) has put in different looks, complementary looks, things that have thrown (off) the offensive front. I mean, Junk (linebacker Markus Golden) has had what four sacks within the past two games on pass-rush looks and getting things that we've schemed up against their specific look.
“So I think there's been a great job by the coaching staff that have put us in really good position to be able to go out there and execute and make plays, but it's a combination of the coaching staff and players doing their job.”
On fourth down, the numbers are eye-opening. On the 15 attempts against the Cardinals actual defense, opponents have gained 19 yards: 3-for-10 passing for 35 yards, three sacks for minus-17 yards and two runs for one yard.
The three successes totaled 35 yards passing, but 25 came with 49 seconds remaining in a 31-19 win over Jacksonville. On the 12 stops, quarterbacks are 0-for-7 along with those 17 yards lost on sacks. Add in the one rushing yard, and on those 12 plays, the Cardinals have “allowed” minus-16 yards.
Five of the stops have been in one-score games at the time and four were in the red zone with two from the 1-yard line.
Like Hicks, Golden said the success is a combination of coaching and playing.
“You got to give coaches the credit when you’re stopping guys on fourth down like that and so many times it's a lot of what the coaches do,” Golden said. “Players; we're stepping up and doing our part too, man. Coaches coach and we’re getting out there and playing, so it's a team where everybody is coming together doing their job and we’re able to get stops. It's exciting.
“Anytime you have a team come out there on fourth down, we want to stop them because we take it as disrespect you want to go for it on fourth down. Now no matter what the situation is, you don't ever want to give a team a first down after they go for it on fourth down. So we’re excited for that. We're gonna keep that up and keep going hard.”