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Cardinals Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph: Pressure Is a Privilege

Vance Joseph is entering his third season as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, following two seasons as head coach of the Denver Broncos. Joseph agreed to share his story with the 33rd Team:

When I got the head coaching job with the Denver Broncos in 2017, the team was just two years removed from winning the Super Bowl. But it was a team facing many challenges – not least of which was the retirement of Peyton Manning. You have to win quickly these days. Teams no longer have the patience for 3- to 4-year projects. After my two years in Denver, I’d love to have another shot at being a head coach. But first we have business to take care of here in Arizona.

I feel good about the 2021 Cardinals. It’s our third season together and usually in the third season you see the most progress. Our first year was a work in progress after drafting Kyler Murray. Last year, we had a chance to go to the playoffs, finished 8-8 and just missed. So we’re hoping to grow in that direction and be a playoff team.

Going into this season, the expectations are that we will be a playoff team. That brings pressure, but it’s also fun. It’s fun for the coaches and it should be fun for the players, to take that challenge and that pressure and move forward, play their best ball. Pressure is a privilege and we have to accept the pressure of this being a make-or-break season for the Cardinals. We should be excited about that.

We’ve got some nice additions to help – J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson. So we’re excited about our team. There’s a lot of great leadership.

I’m especially excited to be reunited with Watt. I was DBs coach in Houston when Watt won the first of his three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Seeing him here with the Cardinals, he hasn’t changed much. He’s a little older, obviously, but he’s the same worker, the same leader. He leads by example. And he also now leads by his words. It’s been impressive to watch him with our young players.

It’s always good to have those kinds of guys around, because those guys carry the culture. The coaches can speak to the culture and ask the players to do certain things, but the culture is really carried through the players. It’s pushed through the players. Coaches can tell players how to work, how to approach the game, how to be a pro, but when you have a guy like J.J. -- three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s a self-made player -- those guys are special to be around. And you can see how the guys gravitate toward him. He’s always the first in line for drills. He wants to be first. If he’s not perfect in something he did in practice, he’ll be watching the tape and the next day improving it. He adds confidence and leadership to our defense, and an example of how to be a great pro.

Some people were surprised when Watt signed with the Cardinals, but it made sense to me. He won his first two DPOY awards playing in this defense. I think he wants to get back to rushing more inside and having a chance to get more one-on-ones. I think the attraction of playing with someone like Chandler Jones, to allow J.J. to get more fair protections and more one-on-ones. It’s also beautiful out here. It’s a beautiful place to live, you get to play on grass. For veteran players, where they live and where they play becomes important.

Of course, we’ll need Watt to bring the pressure. The NFC West is probably the toughest division from top to bottom and it starts with the quarterbacks. You’ve got Matthew Stafford with the Rams now. You’ve got Russell Wilson in Seattle. And you’ve got Jimmy G, who’s played really well in San Francisco when healthy.

Our goal and how we built our team starts with trying to win the NFC West. If you can make it out of this division, you have a chance to win it all. And that’s everyone’s goal.

And while we play a lot of really good quarterbacks, we’ve got a pretty good one, too. Kyler Murray is a special, special talent. But that’s where the league’s going. Defenses have to adjust to the dual-threat quarterback. Practicing against Kyler every day, in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, really helps us prepare for the speed of the game. It allows us to prepare for that kind of quarterback. Because when you’re rushing Kyler, you have to play him a certain way so that he doesn’t kill you. You can’t play certain coverages, certain concepts versus quarterbacks like that. Absolutely, seeing him every day makes us a better defense.

Against a cerebral quarterback, you can call the right defense and win the down. Against a guy like Kyler or Russell Wilson, you can call the right defense, and he can call a play that’s not very good against that defense – but when he pulls that ball down, now the second play starts. Now you’re talking about scramble rules, containing this guy. You’re talking about covering the receivers for four more seconds, which is almost impossible. I would rather play against a Tom Brady – who’s a great processor – and I can do a good job calling a play on defense that hopefully helps my guys. When I’m playing Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson, I might call the perfect defense – but once that defense wins, he starts moving and now the second play happens. And I haven’t called anything for that.

Opportunities come with winning

No matter who we’re facing, there will be lots of pressure on us this season – but that’s a good thing. The pressure has to be a privilege. It can’t be useless pressure. If you’re in a spot where you’ve got pressure to win, that’s a privilege. We all feel that way. And we all look forward to that pressure on gameday.

I know if we can win this season, I’ll get another shot at being a head coach somewhere. I would love that opportunity. But it comes with winning. Everyone is hiring winners. Obviously, there’s the perception that the league is hiring more offensive guys, with defensive guys taking a back seat. But it’s more about winning. If we can win games here, get to the playoffs and have some success, those things will take care of themselves.

With it being my second time around, I’m not as anxious and not as gung-ho to jump at the first opportunity that comes along. This is a really good job. My family loves living in Arizona. But it’s about winning, and being a head coach is still a big deal. There are only 32 head coaches out there.

It’s a special, special appointment, so I would love that opportunity. But it comes with winning. Hopefully we can go far and things will take care of themselves.