NFL: Maligned defence emerges for Cards
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 6, 2009
By Bob Baum
Associated PressTEMPE, Ariz. ó There are two faces to the Arizona Cardinals’ defense.
There’s the ugly one that surrendered 514 yards at New England. Then there’s the handsome one that shut down Atlanta in the Cardinals’ biggest game of the season.
The Falcons managed just 250 yards, including a season-low 60 on the ground, in their 30-24 wild-card playoff loss to Arizona on Saturday. Michael Turner, the No. 2 rusher in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson, gained 42 yards in 18 carries.
The Cardinals’ defense is a bit small by NFL standards, but it’s fast. At its worst, it’s plagued by missed tackles and missed assignments.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt described his defense’s play Saturday as “very disciplined.”
“They played their gaps, they played with good technique, they used their hands, they got off blocks and they talked very well,” Whisenhunt said Monday. “That was very important, and it goes to every position on the team.”
Arizona sacked Matt Ryan three times, once by Antonio Smith for a safety. The defense also scored a touchdown when tackle Darnell Dockett disrupted an attempted handoff from Ryan to Turner. The ball popped into the hands of safety Antrel Rolle, who returned it 27 yards for a score.
Ryan was intercepted twice, once by veteran Rod Hood and later by rising star Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month for December.”Instead of having guys trying to individually make plays, we had a bunch of guys that were focused on playing team defense,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s what we’ve talked about.”
The defense’s image had been tarnished with its play late in the season. In a 35-14 home loss to Minnesota on Dec. 14, the Cardinals gave up 396 yards. Peterson rushed for 165 yards in 28 carries and Tavaris Jackson threw four touchdown passes for the Vikings.
A week later in the snow of New England, things got worse. The lifeless defense barely slowed down the Patriots as Arizona fell behind 41-0 in the third quarter. The Cardinals gave up 183 yards on the ground to New England.
The Cardinals were better in a regular season-ending 34-21 victory over Seattle, but recent history suggested they were ill-equipped to handle the Falcons.
“The focus and the discipline definitely was missing in the games that we struggled,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “Now it’s do or die, it’s win or go home, and right now we’re up to the challenge.”
Dockett, Smith and Bryan Robinson dominated the line of scrimmage against Atlanta, and the front three benefited from strong play by backups Kenny Iwebema, Gabe Watson and Calais Campbell.
“It was great to have that depth and be able to put those guys in there. That’s what saved us in the second half,” Whisenhunt said. “Coming out with their guys getting the ball, our guys weren’t as tired as maybe they would have been last year because we had more depth.”
Rodgers-Cromartie had a team-high nine tackles and three pass deflections to go with his interception. Dansby had six tackles, including three for losses.
Next up is a trip to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers on Saturday night in the NFC semifinals. The Cardinals won’t have their raucous home crowd this time, but they have played at Carolina before. Arizona fell 27-23 on Oct. 26, the closest Carolina came to a home loss all season.Hood said the Cardinals were far from perfect against Atlanta and need to be better to upset the Panthers, who opened as 91/2-point favorites.
“I thought we played strong, but I don’t think that was the best we’ve played,” Hood said.
“I think we can play a lot better. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”