Will the Arizona Defensive Chemistry be a Cardinal Sin

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David Malinsky

Thursday, August 3, 2017 2:30 PM GMT

Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 2:30 PM GMT

Will the Arizona Defensive Chemistry be a Cardinal Sin? (and no, you won’t be able to learn a damn thing tonight)…It’s IFBC time…And it may also be JC Ramirez time, albeit within the proper perspective…

Point Blank – August 3, 2017

Before getting directly to the betting boards, and in laying out the rotation for the NFL team previews there was a bit of a science in bringing the Arizona Cardinals in focus as the national cameras focus in at Canton, let me take a moment to wish all of my friends and industry associates the best of times in San Jose, CR this weekend, the first of what should become an annual event – the International Football Betting Conference.

If you weren’t able to fit it into your schedule have no fears – the SBR cameras will be on hand to record, so the feature topics will be available on video, many of those clips to find their way to this page in the weeks ahead. What you will miss out on is the camaraderie from the gang, the opportunity to take their money at a poker tournament sponsored by YouWager (though remember that you’ll have to get the winnings through customs on the way back), and in truth a lovely setting.

For those making the trip, the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton brings a lot of sunshine into play – some fresh Costa Rican fruit, paired with some of the best coffee in the world, is a fantastic way to begin a day. And I am told that the other meals will also be first-rate, SBR’s own Debbie Stern graciously taking time from her workload to be the food taster (apparently, over recent weeks, she also voluntarily lounged by the pool to test the water temperature; took a long siesta in one of the rooms to check pillow softness; and even showed the dedication to go to Happy Hours at the Sheraton to ensure the proper quality of tequila in the margaritas; her tireless efforts should be an inspiration to all).

Now for some helpful pointers. If you have not met Pete Loshak before, and are relying on the image on the IFBC website, you will be looking for a face that you will not find.

Second, tipping is not standard at restaurants, the service charge already included in the bill, so that some of you cheap uncultured bastards just be who you are. And third, if you are going to spend your late-night/early-morning hours with Gabriel Morency, you may want to alert your next of kin, and your attorney, beforehand. Proper planning and all that…

Unfortunately, what you won’t get to do this weekend is catch Las Tortugas, a local Rock and Roll cover band that has been around San Jose since the early days of the sportsbook industry, having played for over 25 years across various incarnations. File them away for future visits, and I’ll plug the jukebox in today for a sampling, the stoic delivery of Mario something that you really need to see live to appreciate (I saw him do a stunning delivery of “Radar Love” without ever taking more than one step away from the mic stand, a Caruso-esque posture while bringing all of the energy for the proper rendering of some classic Rock and Roll) -

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While a lot of friends are gathering for that weekend some of us will still be at work, but that is OK – it means that we will have the jump on them across certain fronts. Now let’s roll up the sleeves and delve into the Arizona Cardinals, before you turn on the television to watch them against the Cowboys tonight…

How long will it take the Cardinals defense to mesh

Fist, let me get tonight out of the way – there isn’t going to be much of anything to see. Bruce Arians has said that the Cardinals will not play their starters at all. To best some up the Cowboys plan Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News calls it their opportunity “to replace the traditional Blue-White scrimmage held during camp". And to make it as blunt as possible, for one of the rare times in his career Blaine Gabbert will go down as the best QB on the field. So you can politely ask questions about the game in our comments thread (the grey balloon to the upper left triggers it), but don’t expect anything resembling genius from the answers. If you are desperate for action have at it; perhaps watching how random this game flow will be may serve to cure you of that in the future.

Now let’s get to the full season - the overhaul of the Arizona defense has been massive. There will be at least five new starters in the huddle, perhaps six in the early weeks, with nearly 5,000 snaps lost from last season. Calais Campbell, Kevin Minter, Tony Jefferson, Marcus Cooper and D.J. Swearinger were five of the top seven participants, all of them on the field at least 76.8 percent of the time, and Sio Moore and Alex Okafor combined for 473 plays. At this stage they are also not sure if LB Deone Bucannon will be ready for the opener, after undergoing ankle surgery. That demands some perspective if one is to properly anticipate the Cardinals, and it won’t come easily.

First, despite the major turnover, there hasn’t necessarily been a major talent downgrade. Campbell made a lot of plays over nine Arizona seasons, but his best is likely behind him. Swearinger and Jefferson performed well in tandem at safety in 2016, but the chain of command believes that free agent Antoine Bethea has something left in the tank (after 11 seasons, he certainly brings the experience to adapt), while Justin Bethel did get three starts last fall and Tyrann Mathiue is back to full health. However, and this however may matter, signing LB Philip Wheeler and CB Tramian Williams in recent days may tell us that they are not entirely confident about the patching.

Over time we will learn about whether it really was a talent downgrade, but in the early stages my focus will be about their chemistry, which won’t come together easily. That matters with any team, but perhaps even more so with the Cardinals, and the way they play under James Bettcher.

The Arizona defense designed by Todd Bowles, and then tweaked by Betthcer, has relied a great deal on applying pressure from added pass rushers. Let’s go to the 2016 tendencies –

Blitz%          40.9 (#2)

LB sack%     68.5 (#6)

DB sack%    10.9 (#7)

That has been a consistent pattern for several seasons now, and in particular note that they blitzed 41.4 percent of the time on first down in 2017, the NFL high. But how comfortable will Bettcher feel dialing up pressure early in the upcoming schedule, when the players are still learning both the system, and each other? Blitzes leave holes, and holes can be exploited by savvy QBs that are comfortable in their systems.

That becomes my Cardinal focus point because they open on the road against Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck. Then a home game against Dak Prescott and the well-balanced Cowboys, who are a dangerous team to gamble against. How ready will Arizona be for those challenges?

Of particular focus is how ready Bettcher feels they are. This will not just be a matter of studying the efficiency and performance stats, but also those blitz ratios. Will this be the full Cardinal defensive playbook, albeit with new names on the back of many of the uniforms? Or will there be a layer of conservatism? It is possible that the betting markets may over-rate the defense early, carrying over statistics from previous editions, but could also fall into the trap of then over-reacting if they indeed struggle early.

The key? Watch the blitz counts. If they begin lower than normal it would not be a surprise, but as this unit meshes those counts could then begin to pick up. There may be a statistical roller coaster ahead, but those prepared for it may find that they are a step ahead of the marketplace.

About Last Night, and why JC Ramirez has become interesting

Ramirez has always been a tantalizing prospect because he both throws hard, and gets ground-balls, which is an attractive combination. At 256 IP his GB% is 49.6, the current season cementing that with a 49.7, and in 2017 his 96.4 average fastball has only been bettered by Luis Severino, Carlos Martinez and Gerrit Cole. Yet that heat, and those ground balls, have only combined for a 10-9/4.03 that has induced yawns form the betting markets.

I have always wondered if there is a genuine flaw in his arsenal that has negated the upside, something seen by the Mariners, Phillies, Indians, Diamondbacks and Reds, none of those franchises giving him a deep look. And since the Phillies converted him from a starter to a reliever in 2012, he had not been handed the ball to begin a game until Mike Scioscia called on him to do it back in April, as much based on Angels injuries as perhaps on the merit of Ramirez.

Naturally it takes time for someone to go from five seasons of relief work, mostly in the minors, to starting at the MLB level, but I see a progression being made, which is why a moment from Wednesday’s 7-0 LAA rout of the Phillies gets filed away.

Ramirez was pitching confidently and efficiently with a big early lead (the Angels scored all seven of their runs in the third inning), a 12.9 PPI that charts as his second best of the season. He was still showing some signs of fatigue late, which is only natural as he attempted to finish the eighth inning for the first time in his MLB career. He walked Andrew Knapp and allowed a single to Cesar Hernandez with one out in the inning, which led to a visit from pitching coach Charles Nagy, and I instinctively went downstairs to set the coffee maker for the morning. It was going to be a break for a pitching change, right?

But it wasn’t. Nagy and Scioscia wanted to build up the confidence of their emerging starter, the former saying that his basic instruction for the trip to the mound was “Just smile and throw the ball.” Ramirez did that, retiring Freddy Galvis and Odubel Herrera, and he completed the eighth for the first time, while lowering his allowance over the last five starts to 1.93.

I will be tracking closely to see what that win does for his confidence going forward. Ramirez has decent stuff, now he may have the stamina behind it as well, and while his ceiling may not be a high one, it does appear to be higher than the market perceptions (prior to last night he had been an underdog in nine of his previous 10 starts).

Your Daily Dose of SportsBIT

Plenty of NFL news to sort through, a deeper dive into Cardinals/Cowboys, and plenty of college football to talk about. I once had a pleasant chat with Mike Leach at an airport (we are both Winston Churchill fans); might this be a special season for this team - 

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