TEMPE, Ariz. – Cracks in the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive armor are few and far between.
The Cards' run defense is second in the league in yards per play, and their pass defense is fifth in the same category. Overall, the Cardinals are seventh in the NFL in yards per game.
But every Superman has his kryptonite, and tight ends have been bringing Arizona to its knees all season. The Cardinals have given up 14 touchdowns to tight ends this season, five more than the next closest team, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
In losses, tight ends have accounted for 45 catches for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In wins, Arizona has allowed tight ends to catch 35 passes for 400 yards and three touchdowns.
It’s no secret that the Cardinals have a hard time stopping tight ends. When they have, Arizona built a game-plan specifically around Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez. But not ever tight end is worthy of that kind of attention. Just the greatest to play.
With St. Louis’ Jared Cook coming to town this weekend, the Cardinals are reminded of how the season started: Cook had seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1. Since then Arizona’s tried nearly everything. The Cards doubled guys off the line, they’ve stuck Yeremiah Bell on them to try to out-muscle them, last week Arizona even lined up Daryl Washington out wide in coverage.
But nothing seemed to work.
“They can have them covered like a blanket but there’s so much room to throw the football that these big guys can catch it and they’re so athletic, unlike the big tight ends in the past who were more blockers and have the catching circle that these guys have,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s an extremely big match-up problem throughout the entire league. You’re looking for taller, bigger safeties now who have that type of range to cover a guy.
“They’re rare animals, a 6-foot-2 safety that actually has coverage abilities.”
But after 12 games, how can the Cardinals finally stop tight ends when the mismatches are in the receivers’ advantage?
“You got to be able to get your hands on them,” said linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who defended Cook in September while Daryl Washington was suspended. “That’s the key. Any time any guy, any receiver gets a free release you’re in trouble. It can be trouble.”
In Week 1, Brinkley said Arizona didn’t jam Cook enough at the line of scrimmage. But when an offense has more than one weapon, the tight ends seem to be a lower priority. Of the 283 receptions by opposing teams this season, 203 of them were by a position other than tight end.
But when tight ends account for 14 of the 22 touchdowns given up, they need to be accounted for.
That’s why Washington lined up across either Zach Ertz or Brent Celek when they lined up as a wide out. Both times, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles barely got his passes by Washington, one was just a little too high and the other was inside.
“I’ll be ready for the challenge whether he lines up for the No. 1 receiver or whether he’s attached to the line of scrimmage,” Washington said. “I’ll be ready for him.”
Washington said he welcomes the challenge of stopping Cook, but he knows he won’t be on Cook every play, which will cause mismatches.
Arizona’s safeties top out at 6-feet, with Bell. Rookies Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson are 5-9 and 5-11 respectively and Rashad Johnson is barely hitting six feet. The mismatches are what gives Cook and the rest of the tight ends advantages over Arizona on Sundays, but Brinkley insists the Cards can counter by getting their hands on them within the five-yard margin can be the difference.
“Tight ends in the game today, they’re different,” Brinkley said. “They come in a different breed. Cook is more like a hybrid tight end, definitely have receiver speed, naturally create a mismatch just like (San Francisco’s Vernon Davis) does.
“So, nowadays you got to be able to put your hands on him. It’s really the big thing – putting your hands on them and making them restart their feet, throw the timing off with the quarterback. Once you can do tall that, you can pretty much control them.”