Making sense of the Cardinals' defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Arizona Cardinals' defense defies simple categorization heading into a wild-card playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Only the Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs allowed more points than the Cardinals during the regular season.

Then you realize the Cardinals allowed 35 percent of those points in three games. And each of those three games carried its own mitigating factors.

The New York Jets put up 56 points on the Cardinals in Week 4, but Arizona was playing without Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson -- the heart, soul and enforcer of its defense.

The Philadelphia Eagles put up 48 points against the Cardinals on Thanksgiving night, but how many Western teams would have played well after a cross-country trip on a short week, with a division title all but clinched and with the Eagles in desperation mode days after benching quarterback Donovan McNabb?

The New England Patriots put up 47 points on the Cardinals in a Week 16 snowstorm, but only one team was fighting for its playoff life, and Arizona was not that team.

In sifting through additional evidence, you realize the Cardinals were one of six teams this season to hold the Dallas Cowboys below 25 points when Tony Romo was starting. The other five teams happened to rank first through fifth in yards allowed per game this season. They were: top-ranked Pittsburgh, second-ranked Baltimore, third-ranked Philadelphia, fourth-ranked Washington and the fifth-ranked New York Giants.

That qualifies as decent company for the Cardinals, who ranked 19th.

As Arizona prepares for offensive rookie of the year Matt Ryan on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium, does anyone recall what happened the last time Arizona faced a quarterback in his first two NFL seasons?

Trent Edwards doesn't remember, but Buffalo Bills fans certainly do.

Wilson, one of the best in the NFL at disguising blitzes, knocked out Edwards with such ferocity that the quarterback left the game with a concussion, the league levied a $25,000 fine against Wilson and some wondered if Edwards ever recovered. The Bills lost that game and eight of their remaining 11 after entering University of Phoenix Stadium with a 4-0 record.

Yet, after the Cardinals built a 17-3 lead against the Carolina Panthers in Week 8, they allowed two touchdowns in a 46-second span of the third quarter before losing, 27-23.

Oh, well. At least the Cardinals never allowed 408 yards to the 2008 St. Louis Rams, as the Falcons did in Week 17. The Rams hadn't gained that many yards in their previous 19 games. They hadn't rushed for as many yards -- 202 -- since Week 16 of the 2004 season, a span of 64 games.

Not that the Cardinals can necessarily brag about air-tight run defense. They appeared helpless against the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson.

And yet the Cardinals held nine other opponents below 90 net yards rushing. The Giants became the fourth team in NFL history to produce two 1,000-yard rushers in the same season, but they struggled for 87 yards on 27 carries against the Cardinals. Only the Steelers and Cowboys held the Giants to fewer yards on the ground this season.

In attempting to make sense of the Cardinals' defense and its chances against the Falcons' dynamic rushing attack, I polled Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and safety Antrel Rolle. I asked Wilson and outside linebacker Chike Okeafor about potential scheme changes since Whisenhunt arrived last season. And I threw open the topic for discussion in our most recent Hot Topic item on the blog.

A few theories emerged.

1. The Cardinals are sloppy tacklers.

"Most of the Cardinals DBs seem to have problems wrapping up while driving through their opponents while tackling," RedBirdSupremacy wrote. "They will go for the big hit which allows for better, more elusive players a la Steve Smith to make big gains. I know there are other problems, but this is a biggie."

Rolle did not necessarily disagree.

"We need to make sure we're on the same page and play assignment football," he said.

Translation: The Cardinals' fundamentals do suffer at times. Players do sometimes stray from their assignments in an effort to make big plays. That seemed to happen when the Panthers' Smith eluded Rolle and others for a pivotal touchdown reception featuring lots of yards after the catch.

"It was a physical mistake, not finishing plays or doing it the proper way, the way you are taught," Rolle said. "That is a process and we all live and learn. I have definitely learned from it. You make sure you don't make the same mistake twice. That is being a smart football player."

2. Arizona lost focus after clinching the division early.

"Up until [Sunday], we hadn't been playing very well," Whisenhunt said of the defense. "I don't know if that was a factor of the teams we were playing and the situation that we were in. I was encouraged in the
second half [against Seattle in Week 17] that we played a lot better. I feel like we have confidence because of the way we played later in the game going into the playoffs that we'll be aggressive and hopefully be successful."

3. Attrition has exposed depth issues.

"The starters on this team have managed to stay relatively healthy, but key rotation players (Clark Haggans, Ali Highsmith) have been going down in the middle linebackers and the special teams," wrote machpelican3, who also pointed to poor fundamentals and field-position issues relating to special-teams problems.

"No surprise, these have been the areas of the greatest weakness. Those middle linebackers are not getting it done, to the point that you almost forget that they are on the field. The secondary is having to make too many tackles, making them focus less on their coverage. What's more, if the middle linebackers can't get it done, [coordinator Clancy] Pendergast can't utilize Wilson and Rolle on the blitz for fear that those MLBs will blow it. It's hard to blame those MLBs, though, if they get tired."

Though Travis LaBoy and Gabe Watson have also missed time on defense, Wilson said the Cardinals' improved depth has allowed them to rely less on the exotic schemes Pendergast employed in years past.

"We brought guys in that can play multiple positions," Wilson said. "A couple years ago, we had the talent but we didn't have the depth, so we had to do a lot of things scheme-wise to hide guys and to really play to our strengths. Now I think we're more rounded out defense. We don't have to be exotic and try to fool people. I think we can go line up and play with anybody."

4. This defense struggles in the red zone.

"In my estimation, the Cards cannot stop teams in the Red Zone and give up too many long plays in the passing game," joe_cool585 wrote. "They appear to be a young defense, but I wouldn't put all the blame on that. Schematically, the Cardinals' coaching staff never appear to put the Cardinals in positions to make plays when they need them most.

"Obviously their Red Zone D ought to be called into question, but giving up too many plays to allow teams to get into the Red Zone in the first place are just as much the cause of the problems in the Red Zone as the actual D inside the 20 is concerned. Also, this team seems to be relatively undisciplined as evidenced by their inclusion in the top 5 of total penalties the majority of the season. I know the penalties are not limited solely to the defensive side of the football, but that certainly plays a factor."

Indeed, the Cardinals allowed 55 red zone possessions during the regular season. Only six teams allowed more, and none of the six qualified for postseason (Kansas City Chiefs 67, Detroit Lions 64, New Orleans Saints 60, Denver Broncos 60, New York Jets 57 and Dallas Cowboys 56).

Once opponents reached the red zone, Arizona allowed touchdowns 63.4 percent of the time, the fifth-worst percentage in the league.

"Unfortunately," joe_cool585 wrote, "I don't see the Cards making these types of changes anytime soon, or soon enough to make too much noise in the playoffs. Attempting to stop Roddy White and Michael Turner will prove to be too much this weekend."

5. The defensive talent is just OK.

"How about: it's just not that talented?" krankor wrote. "I think Whizenhunt needs another year to finish remaking this defense in his image. In particular, I suspect he'd like it to become a true 3-4, rather than this hybrid business, which seems like a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach."

The Cardinals have appeared to simplify their defense since Whisenhunt arrived. I suspected that might have reflected Whisenhunt's influence on Pendergast, an assistant he inherited from the previous staff.

"It is Clancy's system and it has pretty much been on his style consistently," Okeafor said. "Maybe there is more of an emphasis on let's scale back a little bit and make sure all these guys can go full speed rather than too much thinking. As that grows, we have some new young linemen, some new free agents coming over to learn the package for the first time. In that sense, sometimes less is more."

Wilson's comments about having more depth, and therefore less need for schematic gimmickry, seemed valid to me.

"The Cards, I am telling you, have talent, and I think have been hiding under the radar," craig_campos wrote. "They clinched early and didn't want injuries. Clancy has been known to blitz a lot, especially with Andrian Wilson -- yet he blitzed like 4 times in the last 4 games. They held the Giants to 80 yds rushing, they held Carolina to low rushing yards and they sacked Romo 4 times and caused 3 fumbles (2 of which we either missed or tuck ruled)."

The conclusion? You'll have to draw your own, subject to change Saturday.