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Cardinals Doing it with Defense

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Perhaps one of the more surprising outcomes of the NFL season is that the Arizona Cardinals are on track to outpace their regular season record from last year’s team that would go on to win in the playoffs three straight weeks.  The Cardinals are 4-2, and have quality victories over the Jaguars, Seahawks, and Giants.

It’s a team that’s currently geared to make another playoff run, so long as the offensive line and quarterback can hold up.  Which, to many, might be the most surprising part of their successful start.  The offense has been sorts of average this year, with the running game still struggling along, even while the passing game is barely keeping it’s head above water.  Beyond that, the special teams for the Cardinals are who we thought they were: nothing special beyond a reliable kicker, Neil Rackers.

The only difference between the current Cardinals and the de-facto 2008 division champs before they had done anything in the playoffs to separate themselves is the defense.  The defense that performed well enough to get all the way to the Super Bowl last season, but not well enough for Clancy Pendergast to keep his coordinator job.  This year, the Cardinals have combined their stingy run defense with a top ten passing defense to help befuddle their opponents.

Nothing the Cardinals do on defense is particularly confusing, as a review of the game tape for their match-up with the Giants shows.  The Cardinals are a disciplined team who could have the best defensive line in football.  This is not a resource they didn’t have in the past, but it’s clear that the Cardinals, under Pendergast, did not necessarily use every bit of the talent they had.  DL Darnell Dockett simply isn’t getting talked about enough as an MVP candidate in football circles.  Along with Albert Haynesworth, we’re talking about the two best defensive lineman in football right now.  Haynesworth has become better known as the “million dollar man”, while Dockett is just some dude that plays for the Cardinals.

Equally important to the implementation of their team philosophy is the physicality of which their secondary brings.  Antrell Rolle isn’t a particularly adept free safety, but he brings the sideline to sideline range that is standard for the position as well as a hard-hitting attitude that is channeled by the rest of the defense.  S Adrian Wilson has long been a superstar in this league, but his game isn’t about the versatility displayed by, say, Troy Polamalu.  Wilson is a guy that you put in the box near the line of scrimmage, and then he attacks.  Tight ends, running backs, quarterbacks, Wilson is a guy who will sort through the trash and make a play for you.  And Bryant McFadden is another name who can make the transition over to the new Cardinals defense after being developed by the Steelers.

The Cardinals don’t have a great system that will churn out superstar after superstar at linebacker, in fact, they don’t quite have the LB situation sorted out yet.  But while the process might not yet be finished, the results have been there for this unit this season.  Once again, they emerge as the favorites in the NFC West division, and the strides they have made as a team under Ken Whisenhunt this year should not be ignored, as he has to be the frontrunner for NFL Coach of the Year.  The bottom line: the Cardinals defense is the unit that no one wants to face right now.

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