Cardinals: One big question

Can the Arizona Cardinals' defense maintain the growth it showed late last season, outpacing whatever gains the San Francisco 49ers make on offense?

Joshua Steuter asked that question and a few others via Facebook as part of our ongoing discussion. We could have asked about Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and the quarterback situation, but we've been having that discussion for nine months already.

The answer to Joshua's question could hinge on a few variables:

  • Dan Williams' recovery: Williams, the Cardinals' first-round draft pick in 2010, is returning from a nasty arm injury suffered against the 49ers late last season. Arizona should remain strong at both defensive end spots. Darnell Dockett and franchise player Calais Campbell are established players. Williams was showing signs of becoming one before the injury. Conditioning can be a concern for him. As a first-round talent, he holds the key to determining whether the Cardinals field one of the best 3-4 fronts in the game.

  • Stewart Bradley's transition: Arizona's coaches had big plans for Bradley heading into last season. They envisioned pairing him with Daryl Washington to get pressure with inside blitzes. Do those dreams live? Bradley struggled with the transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4. Paris Lenon beat him out and played well enough to keep the job. Were the Cardinals really that wrong on Bradley? Did the lockout-affected offseason merely delay the transition? The Cardinals will find out for sure this season. They have a full offseason to make this work. And Bradley did take a pay cut.

  • Acho/Schofield progression. The Cardinals were the only NFL team to go through the 2012 draft without selecting a player for their front seven. They had needs on offense but showed faith in some of their emerging defensive players, including outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield. Acho had seven sacks last season. Schofield had 4.5 sacks. Getting one of those players into double digits would signal the continued development Arizona needs to keep its defense on the upswing.

  • Next step for Peterson: Cornerback Patrick Peterson should take a significant step forward, improving the Cardinals' ability to match up with a reconfigured 49ers receiving corps featuring Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Peterson scored four touchdowns on punt returns last season. I like his chances to score on defense this season as well. He'll relish a chance to match up with Moss.

The Cardinals' defense held San Francisco to 23 and 19 points last season despite occasionally horrible play from Arizona's offense. The 49ers converted 11 of 38 times on third down against Arizona, including 3 of 17 times during the Cardinals' Dec. 11 victory over San Francisco.

I'm expecting Arizona's defense to keep pace in this matchup.