GLENDALE, Ariz. – The most important, and probably most surprising, news of the Arizona Cardinals' offseason was that Todd Bowles' phone never rang with an offer of a head-coaching job.
Bowles, Arizona's defensive coordinator, will likely get that call soon. But for the time being, the Cardinals' defense is happy to pick up where it left off.
Bowles was hired in January of 2013 to run Arizona's defense, and players were a bit surprised at the scheme's complexity.
"Our playbook is thicker than I've ever seen in my life," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. "I've played for four defensive coordinators in my career, this is my fourth, and the other playbooks definitely weren't as big as this one."
And the scheme took time to learn, which made the results in Bowles' first year so impressive. Arizona allowed 1,351 rushing yards, the fewest rushing yards in Cardinals history for a 16-game season. Its 47 sacks ranked third in team history. Arizona was sixth in the NFL in yards allowed, led the NFL in rushing defense, had 30 takeaways (tied for sixth in the NFL) and 20 interceptions (fifth in the NFL).
Bowles' complex playbook started to take hold about midseason. That's when the Cardinals started a streak of seven wins in eight games.
"That's the biggest thing, last year, about halfway through the season was when I felt I understood the playbook at a high level where I didn't have to think for a second, I just knew exactly what I was supposed to do," Campbell said. "I think everybody else kind of came on at the same time. We just started understanding it."
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And this year they could take the encyclopedia that is Bowles' defense at the beginning of training camp and actually know what they're doing. You can discount the Cardinals' 32-0 win in their preseason opener against Houston to just being a meaningless exhibition game, but it might be a little more telling than that. Campbell said the defense is much farther along than it was at this time last year, and it showed.
The Cardinals' defense is a great marriage of coaching and talent. Arizona has arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, Patrick Peterson. The No. 2 cornerback is Antonio Cromartie, who signed this offseason to give Arizona perhaps the best duo of corners in the league. The Cardinals have a playmaking young safety in Tyrann Mathieu, and a talented rookie strong safety in Deone Bucannon, the team's first-round pick. The defensive line includes three-time Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett and the underrated Campbell ("It baffles me how he doesn't go to the Pro Bowl," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said). They have a great veteran pass rusher in John Abraham, who hasn't been at camp following a DUI arrest in late June, but Arians said Monday he's hoping Abraham reports this week. The linebacking corps lost Daryl Washington to suspension and Karlos Dansby to free agency, but is hoping former Steeler Larry Foote and second-year Kevin Minter replace their production.
Now put that talent with Bowles' attacking scheme. The Cardinals' website wrote that the defense had 82 unblocked pressures of the quarterback in 2013, citing Pro Football Focus' stats, and those plays resulted in 12 sacks, 31 hits and 39 hurries. When someone gets an unblocked shot at the quarterback in the NFL, you can generally give full credit to the play-calling. And the Cardinals got a lot of unblocked shots at the quarterback.
Again, the preseason opener told a story. With a year of experience in the scheme, the defense looked strong. Houston passed midfield just twice, once getting to Arizona's 41-yard line and the other time getting as deep as the Cardinals' 22, and was shut out.
"The whole defense was rallying all night," Arians said. "They were gang tackling, guys were flying to the ball. Foote is mad because 'Cro' took his interception away from him. We had about four sets of hands trying to grab it, I was just hoping they wouldn't knock it away from each other."
It still seems like the Cardinals' defense doesn't get as much credit as it should. Part of that comes from playing in the same division as Seattle and San Francisco, whose defenses get plenty of attention. Campbell took a realistic approach. He said the defense isn't going to get a lot of respect off just one good season.
"We have to earn it," Campbell said. "Our defense last year was brand new, and we've only done it for one year. We have to do it on a consistent basis. Those guys [San Francisco and Seattle] have been doing it well for a little longer, so they get all the accolades.
"We just had one good year. It could be a fluke, in theory. But we know it's not."
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