The Arizona Cardinals’ defense ranks in the upper reaches of the NFL.
Except when it comes to defending the tight end.
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That problem has been a common theme in every defeat for the Cardinals this season.
In those five losses, tight ends have caught 11 touchdown passes. In Arizona’s seven wins, opposing tight ends have three TD catches.
In last week’s 24-21 loss to Philadelphia, tight ends accounted for all three Eagles touchdowns, two by Zach Ertz and one by Brent Celek.
Not that Arizona is alone in this concern. The advent of the big, mobile, sure-handed tight end has presented problems for every NFL team.
”You put 5-9 safeties on 6-6 tight ends, it’s a tough matchup,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. ”They 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 big tight ends in the past who were more blockers and didn’t have the catching circle that these guys have.”
Arizona rookie defensive back Tyrann Mathieu stands 5-foot-9, and for all his remarkable ability, it’s still a tall order to expect him to match up with a big tight end.
”As a defensive back, we try to focus on taking the wide receivers out of the game,” Mathieu said. ”For the most part, we do that, I think, every game. But it seems like every team is trying to game plan us with their tight ends. It’s a difficult situation. It makes it difficult for the safeties and the linebackers to cover those guys. We’ve got four games left to hopefully get that under control.”
The Cardinals face another good tight end this Sunday when they face St. Louis. Jared Cook leads the Rams in receptions with 40 for 557 yards and four touchdowns. Two of the scores came in a season-opening 27-24 victory over Arizona.
”He’s a good tight end,” Arizona safety Rashad Johnson said. ”I don’t think he’s as good as Jimmy Graham and (Rob) Gronkowski. Those guys can do different things as far as running routes, but he’s definitely a big guy that can run. I don’t think he’s a great route runner, just down the field, vertical threat, he definitely can change the field position. That’s the way they use him. They use him very well doing that.”
Graham devastated the Cardinals earlier this season, catching nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona’s 31-7 loss at New Orleans.
In the Cardinals’ 32-20 loss at San Francisco, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught seven for a career-high 171 yards and two scores. In Arizona’s lone home loss of the season, 34-22 to Seattle, Seahawks tight ends Zach Miller and Kellen Davis each had a touchdown catch.
If defensive backs are often too small to defend a tight end, linebackers usually are too slow.
An exception could be Arizona inside linebacker Daryl Washington, who has the speed to stay with the receivers. But Washington has many other important roles in the Cardinals’ defense.
”If that’s the only issue, it’s easy,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. ”But there are other guys, the running game and wide receiver-wise that we’ve got to take care of.”
Washington said ”the game is changing” when it comes to tight ends.
”You’ve got fast tight ends like Vernon Davis. The guy’s a receiver,” Washington said. ”Jimmy Graham is like a receiver. They’re not normal tight ends anymore. They’re guys that can really stretch the field and open up the defense. It really causes havoc for the defenders.
”Cook won’t be any different. He’s going to try to stretch the field. We have to be willing to keep these guys in check.”