TEMPE, Ariz. – Wednesday’s practice started normal enough.
But when the offense and defense split off, the first thing the Arizona Cardinals’ eighth-ranked defense worked on was something so elementary, it’s usually covered during preseason high school practices. But for Sunday’s game, how the Cardinals substitute may be the difference between a wild-card playoff spot and a spot on their couch come January.
Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense has caused headaches for teams – and cramps. The Eagles' fast pace – averaging about one play every 23 seconds – hasn’t allowed teams to use their normal substitution patterns, which can leave the wrong personnel on the field for a few plays or an entire series.
“They hand the ball back to the referee real fast and they get lined up, so we got to make sure we’re lined up and ready to play,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “You have to be ready to play and you have to be ready to get back up to the ball, and the only way to do that is to try to stop it.”
Arizona worked mainly on getting the defensive linemen off the field quick enough to have a chance to slow down Chip Kelly’s scheme, which he perfected at the University of Oregon.
“We ran, like, 20 plays in, like, seven minutes in practice,” said Alameda Ta’amu, who faced Kelly while in college at Washington. “I think I’m ready.”
Not everybody on the Cardinals’ defense, however, has faced Kelly’s offense, which made it hard to prepare for in practice.
Arizona’s scout team ran as many plays as it could remember in succession in an attempt to replicate the pace, but even Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said it was tough to give the defense a realistic-enough look.
“When you’re going against a team that doesn’t huddle and is an up-tempo thing, getting the right calls, getting everybody in the proper alignments is the hardest thing because it’s really tough to simulate that in practice,” Arians said.
“You keep trying to up the tempo as much as possible but it’s never the same thing as it is in the game. That’s one of the things that we’ll have to do in the first quarter, is get acclimated quickly to the tempo.”
The average pace the Cardinals’ defense has faced this season is about one play every 27 seconds. But those four seconds can be significant to getting players on and off the field. In the secondary, safety Yeremiah Bell said the back end knows how hard it’ll be to substitute.
Whoever starts a series, Bell said, will most likely finish it.
To help the defense counter the tempo, the unit began using wristbands this week with the plays listed on them.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby, who relays the plays from Bowles to the defense through a headset in his helmet, said the wristbands have been working “pretty well.” Whether Dansby gives the defense more than one play at a time will mostly depend on the down-and-distance, he said.
Nose tackle Dan Williams said it makes sense to use the wristbands against a fast-paced team. The Cardinals did it last year against the New England Patriots under a different regime and pulled off the upset.
The wristbands will help the call get to the players faster, Williams said.
“Just to counteract the fast-paced thing,” he added. “Also, I think, too, so we won’t have to panic.”
Besides the line, the rest of the defense tends to play the majority of the game, so conditioning isn’t as much of a concern.
Inside linebackers coach Mike Caldwell said Daryl Washington and Dansby don’t come off the field unless there’s an injury. That’s how they played all season. That’s how it’ll continue.
“When the defense is out there, we expect those two guys to be out there and they’ll go hard like they always do,” Caldwell said. “If you’re not in shape now, you’re not going to get in shape. When you’re out there you’re going to play a certain amount of plays, if not we have guys that are prepared.
“The conditioning part, they’ll be in shape. When it’s time to play, those two guys, they’ll play.”
Same goes for the secondary.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson doesn’t think the tempo will bother the defensive backs one bit.
“We’re definitely in the best shape of our lives and a lot of guys take pride in their conditioning,” Peterson said. “So, we believe the tempo definitely won’t be an issue for the defense as a whole.”