Cardinals starting to find identity as training camp closes

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When the Arizona Cardinals reported for their conditioning test four weeks ago, they were a team without an identity.

They knew what they were last year: a pass-happy, blitz-crazy, battered squad that started 9-1 but finished 11-5 and lost in the first-round of the playoffs. But it was a label for this year -- with a rebuilt quarterback, depth in the backfield and a new defensive coordinator -- that eluded them.

When training camp ended Friday, the Cardinals headed back to their own beds with a better idea of what that answer is.

"I think we did a good job of establishing our identity, figuring out what type of team we're going to be," Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell said.

"I think we have a chance to be special," he later added. "This team has a lot of good talent on it."

When the dust settled from the stampede out of University of Phoenix Stadium around noon Friday, the Cardinals looked like a team at the end of August that was similar but better and deeper than the team that walked off the field in Carolina in early January.

The deep ball will again be a major weapon in Arizona's arsenal. But with quarterback Carson Palmer throwing as well as he has in his career -- camp and the preseason included 55- and 65-yard passes in the air -- and with the addition of speedy wide receiver J.J. Nelson to the offense, the Cardinals have more options on the perimeter than they've ever had previously under coach Bruce Arians.

But one major difference between this year's offense and last year's, at least in training camp, was the depth in the backfield. The Cardinals addressed their lackluster rushing performance last season -- they averaged 3.29 yards per carry -- in the draft by adding David Johnson and then by signing Chris Johnson as a free agent Aug. 17.

If Nelson's addition gave the Cardinals more weapons at receiver, the Johnsons made the entire arsenal more dangerous.

While two offensive players -- wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Palmer -- were the faces of the franchise the last two years, the defense was the backbone of its 21 wins since 2013. When former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles left the Cardinals to become the New York Jets' head coach, the defensive identity was uncertain.

But under new coordinator James Bettcher, Arizona's defense has found itself a personality and it looks a lot like it did under Bowles. The Cardinals blitz as much, if not more, under Bettcher than under Bowles, linebacker Kevin Minter said. And Bettcher installed a new package with seven defensive backs, which has a single goal of getting to the quarterback.

"This team is very talented," Campbell said. "I know the guys that we do keep are working hard to make sure we're in contention when the season is over and done with."

Training camp, again, wasn't without its injuries.

Arizona lost defensive tackle Corey Peters for the year with an Achilles injury. Wide receiver Michael Floyd fractured three fingers. Guard Mike Iupati needed surgery to repair his meniscus, and hamstring injuries were the injury du jour of camp.

And like he has in the past, general manager Steve Keim added veteran free agents either right before or during training camp who could have a major impact this year. The week before training camp began, Arizona signed tight end Jermaine Gresham and added Chris Johnson in the middle of camp.

Both will help Arizona firmly establish its identity before the regular season begins, Sept. 13 at home against the New Orleans Saints.

Until then, the Cardinals have a pretty good idea of who they are.

"Thought we had an excellent camp," Arians said. "Hate to use the word potential because potential is a negative thing for me but we have potential to be a pretty good team. We still, daily, make too many mistakes that beat ourselves with penalties and missed assignments. They cleaned up pretty good in the game.

"But for us to reach where we want to go, we can't be 'potential'. We have to be damn good. That's one of the things I look forward to watching us growing the next two weeks before we play New Orleans. The character of our football team, growing and wiping out that word 'potential' and just see every day and see us play good and eliminate some of these errors that will cost us."