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When the Giants have the ball: What to look for from Arizona’s defense

What challenges will the Cardinals’ defense present to the Giants?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants are riding high as they look to host the Arizona Cardinals and extend their four-game winning streak.

Most of the conversation surrounding the Cardinals will, rightfully, focus on their offense. Between Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme and the dynamic playmaking ability of Kyler Murray, the Giants could find themselves pressured to keep up with Arizona’s offense. When in rhythm and clicking on all cylinders, that offense is explosive and able to put up points.

But we shouldn’t ignore the Cardinals defense. They have talented players on that side of the ball and a scheme that can force mistakes on unwary opponents.

Sizing up the Cardinals’ defensive front

The Cardinals suffered a big blow when they lost star pass rusher Chandler Jones to a season-ending biceps injury back in October. It really didn’t help that Jordan Phillips, one of their most important signings in free agency, was also sidelined with a knee injury shortly thereafter.

What remained was a Cardinals front that has had to make due, but also hasn’t been particularly scary.

Their front is schemed in a (broadly) similar fashion as the Giants’, in that it is based in 3-4 principles but is seldom in a base alignment. As with the Giants, the Cardinals like to use unconventional numbers of down linemen and undersized edge players.

With Jones and Phillips injured, the Cardinals’ best down linemen have been Zach Allen and Angelo Blackson. Both players are resoundingly “okay.” Neither is particularly disruptive, but they aren’t to be ignored either. It’s also worth noting that the Cardinals have designated Phillips to return from the injured reserve.

Haason Reddick has emerged as the Cardinals’ main threat off the edge in the absence of Jones, leading the team with 5.0 sacks in 7 starts. Reddick was a tough pass rusher in college, but he had transitioned to more of an off-ball role in the NFL (he was drafted as an inside linebacker). He isn’t anywhere near the same kind of player as Jones, but Reddick’s athleticism does give Arizona options with their defensive scheme. Because of his experience transitioning to being an off-ball player, he is capable of dropping into shallow zone coverages and has 4 passes defensed this year.

Lining up at EDGE along with Reddick are a pair of familiar faces in former Giants Markus Golden and Devon Kennard. Both Kennard and Golden have started games for the Cardinals this year, with Golden becoming a steady starter since parting ways with New York. This, however, is an area where the Cardinals miss Jones. Each of their remain EDGE players are capable support pieces, but none have the ability to generate a meaningful pass rush on their own.

That’s good news for the Giants’ passing game, but we’ll have to anticipate the Cardinals’ blitz packages to make up for that limitation (more on that later).

Arizona has an “okay” run defense, giving up an average of 123.0 rushing yards per game, good for 22nd in the NFL. That plays into the Giants’ recent strength of relying on Wayne Gallman Jr. running the ball, though that could be more difficult if Phillips is able to return to the field this week.

As we’ve seen over the last four games, the Giants’ game plan will likely center around running the ball to control the flow of the game while protecting the quarterback and limiting the potential for turnovers.

Where is Isaiah Simmons?

Moving on to the second level of the Cardinals’ defense, the question isn’t so much about starting linebackers Jordan Hicks and De’Vondre Campbell, who have played 97 and 88 percent of the teams’ defensive snaps this seaon.

Instead, the question is “where is Isaiah Simmons?”

When the Cardinals selected Simmons in the first round (eighth overall), he was expected to become an X-factor in the middle of their defense. His rare blend of size and athleticism made him a wildcard in Clemson’s defense, playing a variety of roles, from free safety to pass rusher.

Considering Kliff Kingsbury’s collegiate background, it was easy to assume that Simmons would have a similar role in Arizona’s defense — I know I did. But so far he has been a non-factor, more notable for his absence than his play.

Simmons has played just 28 percent of Arizona’s defensive snaps this season, though he’s seen an increase in his snaps over the last five weeks. Over that period he’s played roughly 46.8 percent of the Cardinals’ defensive snaps, a big increase over the 17.2 percent he played in the first five games. Even so, it almost seems as though defensive coordinator Vance Joseph isn’t quite sure what to do with him.

It is worth noting that the teams against which Simmons has seen the most snaps have mostly been teams which make relatively heavy use of their tight ends. The tight end position is a relatively frequent target for teams like San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and Miami Dolphins, and those are among Simmons’ most active games.

If that trend holds true, we could see Simmons matched up on Evan Engram, Kaden Smith, or Levine Toilolo (all of whom figured heavily in the Giants’ game plan against the Seattle Seahawks). Engram is the Giants’ leading receiver with 84 targets and 48 receptions, outpacing both Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard (though Slayton has more yards and touchdowns).

Simmons is one of the few linebackers in the NFL who Engram does not have a size and speed advantage, and we could see the Cardinals try to take advantage of that matchup. And while Simmons doesn’t have much in the way of production as a rookie, we should remember that he had 8.0 sacks, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 3 interceptions, and 8 passes defensed his final year of college. Simmons has the ability to be a playmaker, and the Giants can’t afford to ignore him if he’s on the field — particularly considering their quarterbacks tendency to stare Engram down.

Secondary

The true strength of the Cardinals’ defense — particularly without Chandler Jones in their front seven — lies in their defensive secondary. They field four defensive backs who were drafted in the first or second around in cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Byron Murphy Jr., as well as safety Budda Baker.

Peterson’s name will be the one everyone recognizes, but Baker has supplanted him as the star of the show and the glue that holds the secondary together. Baker is one of the most versatile safeties in the league, able to drop into coverage, play close to the line of scrimmage in run support, and threaten the passer as a blitzer. That versatility gives the Cardinals plenty of flexibility in designing their coverage schemes, as well as in disguising their pressure packages.

And the Giants should expect to see a fairly high blitz percentage from the Cardinals’ defense.

So far this season the Cardinals have seen 442 pass attempts by their opponents and they’ve sent some kind of blitz on 197 of those attempts, or roughly 45 percent. These blitzes tend to come from unexpected places, as the Cardinals rotate their coverages post-snap.

For instance, take this play on a first-and-10 against the Buffalo Bills.

At first glance, this truly looks like Arizona is in a Cover 1 shell with man coverage underneath a center fielding safety. There’s a single high safety with cornerbacks lined up directly over each of the receiving options.

On second glance, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that it might actually be a Cover 3 defense, thanks to the outside leverage taken by Peterson and Kirkpatrick at the cornerback position. After all, one of the clues to a zone coverage is that the outside corners line up just outside the receiver, angling their hips with the goal of funneling the receivers back inside. In man coverage they’d take inside leverage and use the sidelines as extra defenders to shrink passing windows.

But whether you thought it was Cover 1 or Cover 3, you would be wrong either way, and that has significance for the play.

After the snap this turns into a Cover 4 defense with blitzes from Baker (No. 32), and Campbell (No. 59), while EDGE Hassan Reddick drops into shallow coverage on the left side of the defense. The coverage rotation keeps the ball in Allen’s hand while he looks for an open receiver. However, the absence of Reddick and the pressure from Campbell and Baker on the offensive left create confusion along the offensive line, leading to Campbell getting a free run at Allen, who throws the ball away.

While Peterson and Kirkpatrick aren’t the players they were earlier in their career, they are still athletic — and certainly savvy — enough to execute those rotations well.

The Giants have been relying on a quick passing game to both protect them from turnovers and to take stress off the offensive line. We could see plenty of audibles to the running game if there is any question as to what the coverage Arizona is playing.