Can The Arizona Cardinals
Regain Defensive Dominance?
Heading Into This Weekend’s Playoff Battle Against The Carolina Panthers, The Arizona Cardinals Must Find A Way To Contain Cam Newton, But With Recent Failures Against Similarly Styled Quarterbacks, The Task Is Daunting
By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine
Dec. 30, 2014 — The Cardinals head to North Carolina this weekend to play the Panthers in the first round of the NFL playoffs. Despite a record that’s vastly superior to the Panthers (11-5 versus 7-8-1), the Cardinals are underdogs, and for good reason.
After losing starter after starter on both sides of the ball throughout the season, the Cardinals are relying on a fourth string quarterback to lead the team. But, the offense was never this team’s focal point. Don’t get me wrong, Carson Palmer was having a great year before hitting the IR with a torn ACL. But, Defense — with a capital ‘D’ — was this team’s hallmark. It’s the thing that made the Cardinals 11-5 and likely will land defensive coordinator Todd Bowles a head coaching job this offseason.
That’s why it’s so perplexing that the Cardinals biggest question mark heading into the playoffs isn’t at quarterback. It’s actually the defense — now with a lowercase ‘d.’ After playing so well throughout the season, the defense has imploded on itself in the past few weeks.
With Ryan Lindley at quarterback, the Cardinals know what they’re going to get: inaccurate passes and poor decision making. If the team is lucky, head coach Bruce Arians’ scheme can gain the team a few touchdown passes like it did last week against San Francisco. You can’t expect anything more than two touchdowns and a few interceptions from Lindley because, quite frankly, he’s not a NFL playoff quarterback.
But, if the defense can play up to its potential, two touchdowns should be more than enough.
The Cardinals employ the blitz more than almost any other team in the NFL. That penchant for blitzing has made opposing offenses worry with the result that they get away from what THEY want to do. Instead, they have to focus on on a defense that is a legitimate sack threat on every play — despite lacking a premier pass rusher.
The team has been able to blitz often because the defensive backfield has largely been able to hold its own in blitz situations. There have been times when the cornerbacks were exposed, such as the Julio Jones versus Patrick Peterson matchup earlier in the season, but overall, the cornerbacks and safeties have done well.
That hasn’t been the case during the past two weeks in losses to the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Both games saw the Cardinals defensive backfield blow plays, miss tackles and make boneheaded mistakes that led to huge plays by the opposing offense.
Last week, the team gave up a 76-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin when it failed to corral the receiver after the catch. That touchdown proved decisive in the 20-17 loss.
But, it’s not all the defensive backs’ fault. Even when the defense was able to break through on the blitz, it failed to bring down Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick too many times. Both quarterbacks are agile and strong, but the Cardinals defense blew what looked like sure sacks on more than one occasion. In one instance on Sunday, an unaware Kaepernick turned unknowingly into a linebacker’s grasp, only to slip away and run for a gain.
The Cardinals defense ranked 13th in the league this season with 108.3 rush yards allowed a game. That ranking was a lot higher a few weeks ago. Over the past two games, the defense has given up 151 yards rushing just to quarterbacks.
That’s not a good trend coming into a game against Cam Newton.
Arizona is already a long shot to come out of the first round with a victory, but if it’s defense can’t figure out what has plagued it over the past two weeks, a win is a near impossibility. But, if anyone can diagnose and fix the problem, it’s Bowles. He’s proven time and time again that no one should underestimate his defense, no matter what the odds seem to be. After all, this is the same guy who lost two starting linebackers, a starting defensive tackle and multiple depth players and still managed to put together one of the most impressive defenses in the league.
And, if the defense can stand tall, Arians might just be able to pull a little more water out of the stone that is the Cardinals quarterback situation, and secure the team a return visit to Seattle to face the Seahawks in the second round.
But, I’d rather not think about that just yet.
Wayne Schutsky is a senior contributor to Modern Times Magazine.
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