TEMPE, Ariz. – The Cardinals’ defensive line room looks like all the other position rooms deep inside the team’s practice facility.
It’s set up like a classroom, with desks for the players to take notes on and a computer for their coach, the teacher. There’s a white board and an overhead projector. There are windows with blinds. And a heavy door.
It was in this room that the league’s top-ranked defense against the run was built. But it wasn’t done through drills or personnel moves, but instead through one speech in September.
After a Week 1 loss to St. Louis, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner gathered his charges for what they expected to be another classroom session.
It was anything but.
“We just really talked,” Buckner said. “[I asked them] why do you play this game? Why are you here? What did you want to get out of this game? Are you in it for the cars you can drive? The money you get? Because there’s only so much money you can get and you can’t drive but one car at a time.
“It’s got to be something bigger than that and you got to find that and if not, you have to be man enough to say, ‘This is not going to work for me because this is the ultimate team sport.’ You can’t be about I. You can’t be, ‘Well, I didn’t make a tackle.’ We don’t count that. We count wins. We count having success.”
Buckner was shooting straight from the hip with them and his approach worked because they knew Buckner had been there. Having played defensive tackle for 12 seasons in the NFL, he knew what the trenches felt like, smelled like, looked like. He’s been in rooms like that before. He’s heard coaches try to give those speeches.
He’s also seen teams underachieve with talented defensive lines and he wasn’t about to let that happen in Arizona. Throughout that meeting, he called out everyone regardless of stature, longevity or success, but not in a way that drew their ire.
“I told them, ‘Honestly, I never make up stuff to make you look bad,’” Buckner told them. “‘I’m never going to make up stuff to make you look good. I’m a mirror. Whatever you showed me I’m going to show you a reflection. If you show me a bad play, I’m going to tell you you played bad. But, if you show me good play, were going to build on it.’
“And I think by doing that, a trust was built and guys were like, ‘Wow, maybe I do need to do a little bit better.’ And I challenged them.”
The Cardinals responded.
They enter the final week of the season ranked No. 1 against the run, a drastic turn from their 28th ranking last season, allowing 84.5 yards per game. Arizona hasn’t allowed more than 149 yards in a game and held Atlanta to just 27.
With the exception of a few backups such as Alameda Ta'amu, Frostee Rucker and Ronald Talley, it’s the same defensive line – Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams – as last year running the same 3-4 defense, but there’s one minor twist. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles eliminated the multi-gap scheme up front and replaced it with single-gap system.
“What it’s done is allow these guys to let their natural God-given ability play because they can play fast, they’re not thinking,” Buckner said. “They’re not wondering, ‘What is this offense going to do to me?’ We try to preach in our D-line room, they really should call us the offensive line because we’re going to attack you and you’re going to have to defend whatever we’re going to do to you. So that’s our mindset.”
The players have embraced not being restricted on how they get off the line, which has given Arizona’s defensive front more freedom and flexibility. And it’s helped the line regain its swagger. Campbell has eight sacks and Dockett 4.5 heading into the season finale and both were named Pro Bowl alternates. Last season, Campbell had 6.5 and Dockett 1.5.
“I think that it’s really just being able to attack and get off the ball and going forward,” Campbell said. “We have very explosive guys on this D-line, all of us, from top to the bottom, we really get of the ball. We’re aggressive, we attack and we make plays.
“This defense that we run, the scheme that we run now, benefits us and creates havoc in backfields, making running backs stop their feet and cut before they want to and allows linebackers to shoot gaps and make plays, as well. I love it.”
The ranking doesn’t mean as much to Cardinals coach Bruce Arians as it does to the players. They were here last year when the run defense was ranked 28th under former defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Arians is only concerned with two categories: points allowed and turnovers created.
Arizona isn’t bad in either. The Cardinals are allowing 20.1 points per game, seventh best in the NFL and have created 30 turnovers – 20 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries – which is the fourth most in the league.
Pairing the right scheme with the right players has been the biggest difference between last year and this year.
“It’s like a puzzle piece,” Buckner said. “You get all the pieces in the right places, the picture comes out perfect. But, you get one piece that don’t fit, then you’re like, 'What kind of puzzle is this?'”
But to the players who are locking horns every Sunday, being No. 1 is something to be proud of.
“That stuck with me the whole offseason and I was just upset with myself,” Williams said. “I felt like we could’ve did more [last season]. We put a lot of emphasis on it and it shows.
“We were aiming for top 5, but being No. 1, that’s being the best right now. We got to hold it up for one more week.”
Buckner used a word during his come-to-Jesus meeting in September that struck a nerve. He called the defensive line soft. When a team is ranked in the low 20s or even in the 30s, he told them that day, it means offenses are slicing through them like warm butter. Then Buckner turned on the tape and backed up his claims with visual evidence.
That meeting got Arizona’s defensive line focused.
It took a come-to-Jesus drive, however, to make the Cardinals see just how right Buckner was. With the Cardinals down two at San Francisco on Oct. 13, the 49ers started the game-clinching drive with 1:07 left in the third quarter. For the next 9:27, San Francisco milked the clock, running 12 times for 53 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown run that broke Arizona’s back and put the Niners up 29-22.
The Niners had 149 yards that week and four days later, Seattle ran for 135 in a game Arians has dismissed because of the short break. Then started a stretch of performances that solidified Arizona’s place as a defense that’s not worth wrecking with. In consecutive games, the Cardinals held offenses to 27, 76, 32, 80, 105, 100, 66 and 103 rushing yards.
“I think after that game we realized we can’t do that and win games,” Campbell said. “I think we took a step as in we’re going to shut down whoever we’re playing against the run and make them have to throw the ball to beat you.
“And it has worked for us so far.”