2014 Positional Analysis: Arizona Cardinals Safeties

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In this edition of the 2014 positional analysis, I look at the Arizona Cardinals safeties. This group was one of the brightest spots of the season, being impactful in all areas of the game.

The safety and tight end positions have some parallels in their need for versatility. The best tight ends much block like offensive lineman and catch like receivers. Similarly, the best safeties must tackle like linebackers and cover like cornerbacks.

This means that an elite safety, let alone a tandem of them, is a rare commodity for defensive coordinators. Those who have them possess far more freedom to call blitz fakes or rely on zone defenses. A good group of safeties is becoming more and more integral to effective defense.

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The Cardinals did not have a superstar safety in 2014. However, their four man group managed to be very important. It was the one unit that remained relatively healthy and consistent. It’s so good, in fact, that the depth is starting to present a bit of a problem, because some guys can’t get the playing time they deserve.

Rashad Johnson

Oct 12, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson (26) returns an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Stats: 92 total tackles|one sack| eight passes defensed| four interceptions 

To put it simply, Rashad Johnson is one of two players who could be called the Cardinals’ defensive player of the year( the other being Calais Campbell). Johnson led the team in interceptions, was second in tackles, and started all 16 games.

Johnson was a steady presence not only because of health but of experience. Arizona had two sophomores and a rookie in the safety spots. Johnson’s experience became invaluable. He was able to use his instincts and intelligence to make plays despite being less athletic than other players in Arizona’s secondary.

That guy who made the pick-six that kept the Cardinals game against the Atlanta Falcons watchable? Rashad Johnson. The player who put away the Washington Redskins with another interception? Rashad Johnson. The defender who pushed Jordan Matthews out-of-bounds, saving the Cards in their games against the Philadelphia Eagles? Again, Rashad Johnson.

That’s not to say his season was excellent. Johnson is more of a big hitter than he is a coverage player, and it showed. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks completed 75% of passes thrown in Johnson’s area, though there were only 44 attempts total.

Johnson really emerged as the leader of Arizona’s secondary. Through injuries and inconsistency, he was there to make an important play or two every game. The Cards can feel good knowing that one safety spot will be well-managed next season.

Tony Jefferson

Sep 21, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) breaks a tackle by Arizona Cardinals free safety Tony Jefferson (22) during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Stats: 74 total tackles| one sack| one pass defensed| zero interceptions 

Tony Jefferson is what I would call a “just good enough” player. If he’s your starter, it certainly isn’t a catastrophe, but you also don’t know whether he’ll be replaced in the next game. He’s either a mediocre starter or a really good backup, and sits in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

His season was a series of high and low points. He led the team in tackles for much of the season. but other games failed to contribute. One game, he played eight total snaps. The next, he totaled 27. The game after that, he was on the filed for 61 snaps.

Jefferson, like Johnson, is more of a physical player than a pass-defender. His unstable role was not really a testament to any inconsistency on his part. Rather, it was just the depth at the position.

His season was still solid overall. He provides a young athletic presence and seems to be a good guy who is committed to trying. Whether he starts again or plays a smaller role, he was and will continue to be an asset for the Cardinals.