Big Defensive Plays Coming from Surprising Places

The Arizona Cardinals have received contributions from unexpected players during the first seven games of the season.
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With the Cardinals sitting with a 5-2 record at their bye and tied with the Rams for second place in the NFC West, it’s imperative to realize the contributions the team has had, especially on defense, from unexpected sources.

Whether it’s linebackers Dennis Gardeck, Tanner Vallejo and rookie Isaiah Simmons, or safety Deionte Thompson, the production from unexpected backups has led to big plays in key situations.

Sunday night against the Seahawks, notable plays came from Simmons and Vallejo that turned what looked like a sure loss early in the game to a pulsating win in overtime.

Surely, plats like the interception Simmons had on the Seahawks’ final offensive play of the game via an errant pass from quarterback Russell Wilson were expected when he was selected eighth overall in the draft. However, it wasn’t expected Sunday considering his lack of playing time this season and having only four defensive snaps prior to the game-altering play.

Outside linebacker Haason Reddick also had a rough beginning to his career after entering the NFL as a first-rounder and he said this week he has counseled Simmons on how to handle the criticism.

“It’s very similar to what I went through,” Reddick said. “I just told him to keep his head up and just don't let the outside noise get to him. I think that's the biggest thing. Being young and being on social media, you see everything that people say. You hear the noise.

“I told him when his opportunity comes like Sunday, be ready. And he makes a clutch pick to set our offense up to score. I was very excited for him. I want to see him do good. And I believe as long as he stays level-headed, I believe he's going to be the player we all think he can be.”

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph agreed. He said Wednesday, “To watch him pop out of the A-gap and catch the football, that was a great play. His length and his speed obviously showed there and that's what he could be. He could be a serious advantage for us with his size and his length, his speed, that close to the ball. Obviously, as a safety, he would be a good player, but once he understands how to play NFL linebacker, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with because of his skill set. And that's what we want from him. With his size and his speed to be a linebacker playing close to the ball with those skills, it's going to be special.”

Simmons made the huge play that everyone marveled at, but Vallejo did the dirty work behind the scenes at the end of regulation playing as Jordan Hicks was out with what sources told AllCardinals is an ankle injury.

After the Cardinals cut the Seattle lead to 34-31 late in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks got the ball with 2:28 to play. After the Seahawks got one first down, the crucial series followed. On first down, Vallejo and defensive tackle Leki Fotu stopped running back Carlos Hyde for just a one-yard gain.

One of the hardly discussed factors in Seattle’s second-half offensive struggles was the absence of running back Chris Carson, who left the game late in the first half with a foot injury. After Hyde gained seven yards on second down, the Cardinals used their final timeout. A first down would have clinched the game, but it was Vallejo who made the stop of Hyde on third-and-2 for no gain that forced a punt.

Said Reddick, “Tanner stepped in. That was great to see. He's another guy who just works. He doesn't complain. Here he is another guy with an opportunity to show what he can do and comes in and he makes a clutch stop. It's very good to see that. It's great to see that when a guy like Jordan goes down that somebody else can step in and there's no fall off. There's no shortage of talent.”

When it was noted that many different players on defense have stepped up this season, Reddick said, “It just shows what type of talent we have. It shows that we have depth. And it shows that we have a lot of guys that can play ball and there's a lot of guys that could come in and make an immediate impact. With guys like Dennis and guys like Tanner coming in making plays, it just shows that we have the ballplayers.”

Joseph gave credit to the coaches for making sure the depth players are ready to play.

“We have great coaches,” Joseph said. “Having (defensive line coach) Brentson Buckner back here to get Leki up to speed and (rookie nose tackle) Rashard Lawrence up to speed and even the impact of (defensive tackle) Zach Allen, to watch him play so well. Seeing linebackers (coach) Billy Davis and (outside linebackers coach) Charlie Bullen working with those guys and keeping those young guys engaged each week with the game plans and to keep those guys growing in the secondary. (Defensive backs) coach (Marcus) Robinson and (cornerbacks coach Greg) Williams, those guys do a great job with our young guys, pushing them every single day in practice. And when their time is called, they're ready to play. That's about coaching first and about having young guys who are workers and guys who want to study and get better and better every day.

“It's been fun to watch Gardeck and Thompson at safety play well for us and watch Tanner go in a game on Sunday night and make tackles as a Mike ‘backer in critical moments in the game. That's coaching and it's also players just being fully engaged all the time. And when their time’s called they answer the bell.”