Late-season trend sustainability: Cardinals

The third of four posts examining the likelihood of a positive trend carrying over from last season, this one for the Arizona Cardinals

The trend: The Cardinals' defense ranked among the NFL's statistical leaders in several categories from Weeks 9-17, a dramatic improvement from earlier in the season. The defense improved from 26th to third in touchdowns allowed, 17th to first in third-down conversion rate, 24th to 13th in yards allowed, 16th to third in sacks, 24th to second in yards per pass attempt and 14th to first in red zone touchdown percentage, according to a chart the team included in its end-of-season review.

A few things to consider: Arizona returns nearly all its key players on defense. Cornerback Richard Marshall was the exception, but Arizona feels better about its depth at the position after adding William Gay and Jamell Fleming while welcoming back Greg Toler from season-ending knee surgery.

The defense clearly benefited from becoming familiar with the new system first-year coordinator Ray Horton installed. The development of young outside pass-rushers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield also played a role. The team needs Acho and Schofield to continue their rise as both enter the season as full-time starters for the first time.

I've heard some point to the Cardinals' 2011 late-season schedule as one factor in the team's defensive improvement.

There were some limited offenses on the schedule, but Arizona held Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys to 13 points in an overtime victory. That was the Cowboys' second-lowest total for a game in which Romo attempted more than two passes (Dallas scored only seven points against Philadelphia in Week 16, losing Romo to injury after two attempts).

New England and Philadelphia are on the Cardinals' schedule early this season. Arizona also faces the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. It'll be tough to pick up where the Cardinals' defense left off from a statistical perspective, but this unit does appear likely to improve over time.