Arizona Cardinals Building A Tenacious D
Left For Dead Weeks Ago, Ken Whisenhunt’s Squad Is Surging Thanks To A Physical, Smart Defense
By Bob Goodwood
Modern Times Magazine
Dec. 13, 2011 — After starting the season 1-6, there were few who thought the Arizona Cardinals were going anywhere in 2011.
There were some commentators out there who thought they should just play to lose in order to get the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. Who could blame them? The Cardinals were looking horrific on offense, while barely competent on defense. They had a big-money quarterback (Kevin Kolb) who could not stay on the field, a second-year signal caller (John Skelton) who was not ready for prime-time and they had gone 5-18 since Kurt Warner retired.
But a funny thing happened on the way to drafting Andrew Luck. The defense under the tutelage of Ray Horton began to punish people.
In the first game of the season against Carolina, the Cardinals gave up 26 first downs and 477 yards. Game two against Washington was not much better, giving up 455 yards. Week three, the Seahawks took themselves out of the game with their inert offense, gaining 261 yards, but the next four weeks saw the defense give up 360, 332, 445, and 405 against the Washington Redskins, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
Even the first win in their current 5-1 run was a weak showing for the defense as they gave up 383 yards to the St. Louis Rams. The defense then began to show signs of life, giving up less than 300 yards (289) for the first time in 2011 against the Philadelphia Eagles. They followed that up with 431 yards allowed to the San Francisco 49ers, but to be fair, the offense was completely inept, holding the ball for a little over 15 minutes. The 49ers had the ball on offense for nearly 45 minutes. No defense can perform at a high level when their offense keeps them on the field all day.
But even though they gave up more than 400 yards to the 49ers in that game, the final score was close (23-7) because the defense was amazingly stingy in the red zone. The 49ers missed three field goals, converted three and scored two touchdowns. That is not a bad performance from a defense that is on the field so much.
Since that game, the defense has showed how far they have come from game one. In the rematch against the Rams, they only allowed 272 yards, a 100-yard improvement over their first 2011 match-up. They did give up 336 yards to the Dallas Cowboys, but again showed how tough they are in the red zone, giving up only one touchdown and two field goals — the Cowboys also missed two, including the infamous game-loser.
The Cardinals defense then had their best performance of the season last week against the 49ers, allowing only 233 yards and one touchdown. Again, they were magnificent in the red zone, turning the 49ers away from six points three times. Hell, the defense stopped the 49ers twice when they had goal-to-go situations.
Over the first seven games, the defense gave up an average of 390 yards. Over the past six, the Arizona Cardinals defense has given up only 324 yards. While 66 yards may not seem like a lot, when combined with the fact that they gave up 26 points points per game in the first seven contests, and merely 17 in the past six, it is a great indication of how hard the guys and the staff have worked.
The Arizona Cardinals might finally be turning into the Southwestern version of the Pittsburgh Steelers — a punishing, bend but never break, disciplined defense combined with a competent, disciplined offense. The Kurt Warner effect changed the course of that idea in Arizona for a while, but so did having the right play-caller on defense.
First-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton deserves much of the credit. The Dick LeBeau defense is about physicality and calculated risk and Horton has only implemented elements of it as the players were ready to handle it.
Take, for example, blitz packages. If you watch the Arizona Cardinals game tape from last week, it was a rare thing when anyone on the defensive line got out of their lanes. They knew where they needed to be at all times, did not over pursue, and were consequently in the right position even when the blitz got picked up.
Without such discipline gambling on the blitz is not a calculated risk, it is Russian roulette.
All game long, when 49er quarterback Alex Smith scrambled, he had nowhere to go and he had no open receivers. The last defensive play of the game was a microcosm of this idea. Smith got away from pass-rush pressure and fled the pocket, but then had no where to go but backwards and to throw through a forest of defenders to a well covered receiver while on the run.
If a defense can’t get a sack on fourth down and whatever with less than two minutes on the clock, that is surely the way coaches draw it up.
That is the Dick LeBeau defense — the modern times version of the Steel Curtain of lore.
Even though the Cardinals remain a long shot for the playoffs this year, it remains theoretical thanks to the recent 5-1 run. But even if they can’t get there, the possibilities seem endless heading into next season when "Pittsburgh West" will come out of the gates with a full head of steam thanks to the resumption of OTAs and a full training camp.
Forget the Steel Curtain, 2012 just might be the birth of the Cactus Curtain. And if they get really lucky — make that really, really lucky — it might just happen in this year's playoffs.
Bob Goodwood is a freelance writer currently living in Scottsdale, Ariz.