Shhh: Cardinals' defense could surprise

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Arizona Cardinals rookie Tim Hightower took the handoff from Kurt Warner and sliced through the Oakland Raiders' defense for a 13-yard touchdown run Saturday night.

The untrained eye saw a terrific play for the Arizona offense, further evidence that Hightower can lighten the load for workhorse running back Edgerrin James.

The Cardinals saw another reminder that their defense might be the best-kept secret in the NFC West this season. The Arizona offense had struggled to execute screens and draws all summer, never more than during practice sessions against a starting defense loaded with versatile veterans. To see a draw play produce a touchdown affirmed early impressions about a defense that could be on the rise.

"In fact, we've been very frustrated and it's one of the things we wanted to work on because we haven't had any success against our defense," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The Cardinals shut out the Raiders, 24-0, but quarterback Matt Leinart's struggles were all anyone could talk about afterward. Leinart, battling Warner for the starting job, tossed three interceptions. His performance left the Cardinals' defense in a familiar position: overlooked and overshadowed.

That figures to change when offseason hype yields to regular-season results. The Cardinals quietly think their defense could surprise.

"We have a lot more depth at every position than we've had in the past," pass rusher Bert Berry said.

The quarterback race and Anquan Boldin's contract dispute have drawn attention away from a Cardinals defense stocked with versatile linebackers and defensive ends.

Arizona's division rivals also have hogged the spotlight.

The St. Louis Rams made headlines by drafting defensive end Chris Long with the second overall choice. The San Francisco 49ers signed free-agent defensive end Justin Smith to a $45 million contract. The Seattle Seahawks sent defensive end Patrick Kerney, middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, outside linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Marcus Trufant to the Pro Bowl as starters. Seattle then signed Tatupu and Trufant to lucrative contract extensions.

The Cardinals? They quietly fortified their front seven with tough, experienced veterans in Bryan Robinson, Clark Haggans and Travis LaBoy. They added cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive end Calais Campbell and defensive end Kenny Iwebema in the first 116 choices of the draft. And they moved Antrel Rolle, the eighth player chosen in the 2005 draft, from cornerback to safety.

Haggans, a starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004 through last season, is pushing outside linebacker Chike Okeafor for playing time. LaBoy, who left the Tennessee Titans amid concerns over concussions, has started over Berry recently (both figure to play extensively). Robinson provides insurance behind nose tackle Gabe Watson while putting pressure on 2007 second-round choice Alan Branch.

"The higher the competition, the better it is in the long run for all of us," Okeafor said. "There is no dropoff and plenty of snaps [to go around]."

Linebacker Monty Beisel and defensive end Joe Tafoya, veterans with a combined 13 seasons of NFL experience, are suddenly fighting for roster spots.

Defensive end Darnell Dockett, linebacker Karlos Dansby, linebacker Gerald Hayes and safety Adrian Wilson are aggressive, active defenders. They've played with swagger all summer, even in the exhibition games. Dansby picked off a pass against the Raiders. Hayes returned a fumble for a touchdown (Oakland successfully challenged the play, claiming the runner was down). Wilson, who leads the NFL in personal-foul penalties since 2001, laid out Raiders receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins with one of his signature tackles.

It's only preseason, but the Cardinals aren't playing that way on defense. They seem possessed.

"I felt it in pregame," Whisenhunt said after the Oakland game. "They were excited last week because they did some good things and [Saturday night] they were rea
dy to go."

The Cardinals' can be difficult to figure from a scheme standpoint, and that is how they like it. Clancy Pendergast is one of the more creative coordinators in the league. He runs a hybrid defense that is part 3-4, part 4-3, part 5-2 and part unknown.

Former Cardinals receiver Bryant Johnson, now with the San Francisco 49ers, had trouble characterizing the scheme succinctly even though he practiced against it daily. Okeafor, now in his fourth season with Arizona after stints with the 49ers and Seahawks, was similarly short on details.

"We're everything," Okeafor said. "I don't want to talk about it too much because we have different things going on this year. I'll let our opponents figure that out for themselves."

The Cardinals' aggressive nature can leave them vulnerable to big plays against experienced quarterbacks. Wilson, violent as he is when he finds his target, hasn't always been consistent in coverage. Secondary depth could be an issue even with Rodgers-Cromartie onboard. Injuries have sidelined Okeafor and Berry for a combined 41 games over the last three seasons. LaBoy's concussion problems dissuaded the Titans from re-signing him.

"We seem to have the right chemistry right now and guys have bought into what we are doing," Berry said. "It's a matter of being consistent with it and continuing to build off games like [Saturday night] and carrying it over to the regular season and staying healthy.

"One thing about us, we've had this caliber of defense in the past where we just haven't stayed healthy."