The Arizona Cardinals are currently the only undefeated team (7-0) in the NFL. A variety of factors have played a role in their hot start.
And veteran pass rusher JJ Watt is one of those major pieces to the Cardinals’ unprecedented success. A shoulder injury suffered int he 2nd quarter of Sunday’s game will sideline Watt for at least three months, so the Cardinals have to move on without him.
JJ Watt needs shoulder surgery, and the recovery is likely to be at least three months. This may knock him out for the season, per multiple sources. pic.twitter.com/MzKxZph2BR
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) October 28, 2021
The Cardinals have been mainstays in our Top 5 NFL Defenses list, and losing such a huge influence on the field is going to weaken them as a team.
But how much?
People expected them to eventually come back to the pack anyway. Now, there’s a legitimate reason for those negative predictions.
Watt Loss Makes NFC Race Even Tighter
Watt going down could be a huge development in the NFC with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers (6-1), Packers (6-1), Rams (6-1) and Cowboys (5-1) all having elite QB play and strong squads.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will be able to scheme up a pass rush, but without Watt the defense might struggle against strong offensive lines and QBs who’ve seen it all.
This loss also puts more pressure on MVP hopeful Kyler Murray to be even more special and dynamic, as the defense could see a drop in production with the loss of such a vital piece. Watt’s presence alone makes a huge difference.
Key Additions To Defensive Philosophy
The defense has improved immensely with Joseph taking over in 2019, one season after the Cards finished the season as the NFL’s worst.
Through seven games, our defense has allowed 99 points.
For those counting at home, that includes 20 points or fewer in an NFL-best six games this season. No other team in the NFL has more than four such games in 2021. pic.twitter.com/T1jI8aLvgl
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) October 27, 2021
Fixing that defense has been at the forefront of the Cardinals’ plans. With an offense that possesses Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, that side of the football is solid.
Cardinals are No. 1 in defensive DVOA against tight ends, and it's not particularly close.
Between Isaiah Simmons and Budda Baker, they have the personnel to handle those guys though the air.
Probably not going to be a Big Bob game.
— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) October 25, 2021
Then they drafted Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins in the first round of the 2021 draft, tightening up their down-the-middle defense, tackling, and coverage at the second level.
With pass rush specialist Chandler Jones manning one edge spot, the Cardinals felt the need to add someone to take the pressure off of teams game-planning to neutralize his effect.
Watt Signs With Arizona
Enter JJ Watt.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time first team, All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowl player and two-time sacks leader isn’t what he once was due to age and attrition, but he’s still very serviceable. His leadership and ability to hold his teammates accountable can’t be understated.
The Cardinals defense with Watt this season jas held opponents to a league low 16.3 points per game with a stout run defense and a relentless pass rush that is aided by the attention that Watts receives from offenses.
That sack by JJ Watt – his first with the Cardinals – gives him 102.0 career. Only 8 in NFL history had more sacks in their first 134 career games.
Watt & teammate Chandler Jones each w 102 career sacks; among active players only DEN’s Von Miller has more (110.5). pic.twitter.com/M9a23UDJ7j
— Mark Dalton (@CardsMarkD) October 17, 2021
That attention has allowed Jones to see less double teams and even for rotational edge rusher Markus Golden to thrive when they bump Watt inside on third downs to get more pass rush on the field.
Since 2012, Chandler Jones and JJ Watt lead the #NFL in defensive sacks.
The Arizona Cardinals now have them both. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/vMbjGQIiXs
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) March 1, 2021
Can Arizona Hold Off The Conference Dogs?
The Cards’ offense has been good but has been aided heavily by a defense that has shut down and held the Titans (5-2), Rams (6-1) and Browns (4-3) to a combined 47 points in road wins. Watt played a huge role in these wins with his presence alone.
The Buccaneers, Packers, Rams, and Cowboys are now just a bit closer to overtaking the only undefeated team in the NFL, a league where a great pass rush is something no QB wants to see. Watt gave Arizona that advantage up the middle and off the edge.
Now teams will be able to game-plan for the Cardinals much better, which in turn means Joseph may be relegated to blitz more. Blitzing makes the back end more susceptible to big plays.
The record says perfection, but as far as team construction goes the Cardinals are now flawed.