Versatile play of Mathieu, Bucannon key to Cards' defensive success
The most successful teams in the NFL at the moment have athletic tight ends that provide matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. Most linebackers simply cannot contain the likes of mismatches like Rob Gronkowski or Tyler Eifert.
The emergence of the tight end as more of a threat in the passing game has subsequently changed the requirements at the linebacker and strong safety position; coverage ability is now a higher priority. The Arizona Cardinals are probably ahead of the curve in acknowledging the necessity of having players in the box with good cover skills. In Tyrann Mathieu especially, as well as Deone Bucannon, the Cardinals have two players who are more than capable of holding their own in coverage.
Tyrann Mathieu (+18.9) is now PFF’s second-ranked cornerback, with an overall grade of 93.4 this season in our new Player Grades. His 93.8 coverage grade is also second-best in the league. Although Mathieu has given up some big plays (five touchdowns allowed), his per-snap performance has been impressive. He excelled against the Ravens’ short and intermediate game on Monday, coming up and stopping receivers for minimal yards after the catch. Mathieu also performs well in the slot, where his 0.87 yards per cover snap allowed ranks eighth best in the league. His ability to limit yardage on shorter throws, as well as to cover slot receivers downfield, is one of the keys to the Cardinals’ defensive success.
While his performances have not been as eye-catching, Deone Bucannon’s shift from safety to linebacker has also helped the Cardinals. A safety at Washington State, it is only this year that Bucannon has been moved to linebacker, after playing his entire rookie year in the secondary. After only a decent year in coverage (+0.4 in 2014) Bucannon looks more at home closer to the line of scrimmage where his lack of range is less exposed. The Cardinals now have him doing what he does best, which is keeping everything in front of him, and then close to make the play. Although his coverage numbers aren’t the best, he’s made a number of tackles around the line of scrimmage in the passing game, culminating in a +3.2 cumulative season grade. Compared with Larry Foote’s -9.8 grade in 2014, that’s a significant improvement.
Despite the fact that coverage is now more of a priority for linebackers and safeties, the other facets of the game are not redundant. It helps, therefore, that Mathieu is our top-graded corner in run defense (89.1) and holds the top spot in run stop percentage. He is also the most productive blitzer at the position. Couple Mathieu’s contributions with Bucannon’s ability to shed blocks (9.4 run stop percentage), and Arizona is able to compensate for some deficiencies in the front seven (Calais Campbell not withstanding) by using their recent additions in creative ways.
Arizona looks like one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC, and their versatile defensive backs are a key reason for it.