TEMPE, Ariz. – With just a few words last week at the NFL owners meetings, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians turned a traffic jam at safety into a standstill.
Arians was asked what the plan this season will be for Deone Bucannon, Arizona’s first-round pick a year ago. Drafted as a strong safety, Bucannon spent his rookie season in a hybrid linebacker-safety role, playing 691 snaps in 2014.
“He’s going to play safety,” Arians answered.
And with that, the Cardinals’ deep secondary found itself in a logjam.
They have four safeties -- Rashad Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson and Bucannon -- competing for two or three jobs, depending on the scheme. All four were on the field at the same time last season for just 70 plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The most common two-safety lineup was Johnson and Jefferson, used in Arizona’s base defense against the run. The most common three-safety lineup was Johnson, Mathieu and Bucannon, primarily used against in nickel and dime defenses with three corners.
Considering Johnson played all but six snaps last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, it’d appear that his starting job will be tough to steal. That leaves three players for one or two positions.
But there may be a way to get all four safeties on the field at once.
Arians also said that Bucannon could potentially return to his hybrid linebacker role if the Cardinals don’t have “the other guy.” If Arians was referring to Daryl Washington, who may be facing an additional suspension if he’s reinstated later this year, Bucannon could possibly start the season next to Sean Weatherspoon at inside linebacker on passing plays.
“We know he can play dime linebacker,” Arians said. “He’ll play safety until we find out we don’t have the other guy. We know we have flexibility because we have so many good, quality safeties. He’ll still play the position because we will still have that package.
“We like to have that much speed on the field.”
Without Washington, Bucannon would move up to play linebacker in nickel and dime situations, which would require a slot cornerback. This is where Mathieu would enter the lineup. As a rookie, Mathieu played 487 of 751 snaps in the slot. And with Antonio Cromartie vacating right cornerback, it’s likely that Jerraud Powers -- who played slot corner last season -- will slide outside allowing Mathieu to move up to corner.
Arians believes Mathieu will return to his rookie-year form after spending 2014 recovering from ACL and LCL surgery, gaining his confidence and playing through a fractured thumb.
“Everything that I’ve seen and heard, he’s flying around,” Arians said. “He’s gotten a little better, looks extremely healthy. I know this, he’s got a gleam in his eye that I haven’t seen in a while.
“You saw him fight through it last year. He was not the player he was used to and it was very frustrating for him.”
Waiting patiently the past two seasons has been Jefferson, who filled Mathieu’s role at the start of 2014 and led the Cardinals in tackles the first part of last year. His role will be defined next season by what scheme Arizona runs on a specific play. In base, Jefferson will be watching from the sideline. In nickel or dime, depending on what happens at the slot corner, Jefferson could have significant responsibilities alongside Johnson.
Fortunately for new defensive coordinator James Bettcher, he has about five months to figure out what his starting secondary will look like.
“That’s the beauty of our flexibility right now,” Arians said. “We can blitz different players and still have capable man-to-man defenders on the field. So, yeah, the depth at safety is a really good thing.
“Just like every other position, you’ve got to check your ego at the door sometimes. That’s why when we introduce defense, we introduce 13, 14 guys. They’re all starters. Our nickel guys play more than our first-and-10 guys.”