ADRIAN WILSON wassitting on a mound of foam blocking pads after a recent practice when defensivetackle Darnell Dockett sneaked up from behind and playfully wrapped theCardinals' strong safety in a bear hug. The teammates rolled onto the manicuredgrass and then laughed at how Wilson had allowed himself to be caughtoff-guard.
If opponentsaren't careful this season, they could find Arizona defenders taking them bysurprise. The unit struck fear into no one last year, giving up 35 or morepoints in five games. But a change in coordinators and a mission statement thatincludes fitting the scheme to the personnel have the players believing areturn to the Super Bowl is possible.
With quarterbackKurt Warner leading an offense that tied for third in the NFL in scoring (26.7points per game), the defense doesn't have to be great. It has to beconsistently solid, which is why new coordinator Bill Davis, promoted fromlinebackers coach in February to replace the fired Clancy Pendergast, hasfocused on eliminating big plays and on making third-down stops. Last seasonArizona surrendered a league-high 36 touchdown passes, including 13 thatcovered 20 or more yards (three more than any other team); allowed opponents toconvert 30.3% of plays that were third-and-six or longer (26th in the league);and gave up first downs on third-and-10 or longer 14 times (tied for worst inthe league).
"The past fewyears we were a lot more vulnerable to big plays because we were apressure-oriented team, and that wasn't always the proper way to do it,"says Wilson, a ninth-year veteran and a team captain who has spent his entirecareer with Arizona. "But that was something Clancy loved to do—gamble. Andwhen you gamble, you [sometimes] give up big plays. We definitely want to cutback on that this year. If it's third-and-eight, third-and-nine, we're notgoing to send the house."
That doesn't meanthe defense will be passive. The Cards have elite talent in the athletic andphysical Wilson, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who can be a force against therun and on the blitz; Dockett, a quick, physical presence in the middle of theline who's near unblockable one-on-one; outside linebacker Karlos Dansby, atackling machine; and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the game's top youngcover corners. Arizona also added free-agent cornerback Bryant McFadden (lateof the Steelers), who'll provide a greater physical presence to thesecondary.
"We canattack the quarterback a lot of ways," says Davis, 43. "I've got a lotof dynamic, versatile athletes who can rush. All of the secondary can catch theball, and I've got two or three in the secondary who can blitz and beat runningbacks in pass protection. What I'm trying to do is maximize the talent we have.In the meantime I'm diving into the details of each [situational] defense sothe players understand exactly what's being asked of them at each position,from stance to eyes to technique to why the call was made."
The goal is tokeep foes from reaching the end zone on quick strikes (opponents' scoringdrives averaged 7.23 plays against the Cards last year, fourth worst in theleague), to make them work extra hard for every point. If the D, which ranked28th in points and red-zone efficiency, can limit opponents to 21 points pergame instead of the nearly 27 it allowed last year, the explosive offenseshould get the team a win.
"The change[in coordinators] was about productivity more than anything else," coachKen Whisenhunt says. "I don't know if things will look a lot different interms of what we do defensively, but I'm looking for consistency. If we can cutdown on the big plays and reduce our points allowed, we should besuccessful." And that would give fans in the desert something they've neverhad: a consistent NFL winner.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
17--15 in NFL, third season with Cardinals
Dan Kreider (1att., 0 yards for the Rams) lines up at FB; first-round draft pick Chris(Beanie) Wells (1,197 rushing yards, 8 TDs) will push Hightower at RB.
SACKS 2 ½
Bertrand Berry(team-leading 5 sacks) switches from DE to pass-rushing OLB in new 3--4scheme.
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2008 RECORD 9--7
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 32 > 2 > 4
DEFENSE 16 > 22 > 19
13 SAN FRANCISCO
20 at Jacksonville
18 at Seattle
25 at N.Y. Giants
8 at Chicago
22 at St. Louis
29 at Tennessee
14 at San Francisco (M)
20 at Detroit
27 ST. LOUIS
3 GREEN BAY
NFL Rank: 27
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .441
Games against playoff teams: 5
The Cards were 0--5 and outscored by 20 points per game when they played in theEastern time zone in 2008, but they have only three games there this year andavoid cold weather. Arizona also doesn't pay much of a price for getting to theSuper Bowl, thanks to the weak NFC West and a nondivision schedule that sendsthe tougher foes—Indy, Minnesota, Green Bay—to Glendale.
Tim Hightower, Running back
A fifth-round pick out of Richmond last year,Hightower looked to be the heir apparent to Edgerrin James after rushing for109 yards and a touchdown in his first start, in Week 9 against the Rams,averaging 5.0 yards a carry. But over his next six starts he totaled only 134yards and gained 2.1 a carry. Though James regained his starting job for theplayoffs, Hightower came back strong in the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl.He scored a touchdown in each of their first three postseason games, includingthe decisive TD catch in the conference final against the Eagles.
Rather than receiving a vote of confidence after Jamesleft as a free agent, however, Hightower was presented with more competition:Arizona's first-round pick in April was Ohio State running back Chris (Beanie)Wells. One stat of Hightower's was particularly worrisome: 19 of his 143rushing attempts as a rookie went for negative yards, a 13.3% rate that wasfourth highest among players with at least 140 rushes. He addressed that issuethrough off-season conditioning, lowering his weight and body fat while gettingstronger.
Hightower is taking the drafting of Wells (who wassidelined with an ankle injury during his first practice) as a challenge,rather than a slight. "It's not like I was surprised," he says."It's not like I was disappointed. We were thin at running back."
GENE LOWER/ARIZONA CARDINALS
CLOSING RANKS Wilson and his mates must tighten up in the red zone and on third-and-long.