The return of Arizona Cardinals star inside linebacker Daryl Washington after serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy could have gone better—but not much better.
It was a near-perfect game for Washington, as he recorded nine tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and two hits of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and a big interception down in the red zone.
To say he had a hand in Arizona’s 22-6 win over Carolina is the understatement of the season. He was everywhere on the field—a menace, a thorn in the side of the Panthers. All day Sunday, he was where the Cardinals needed him to be.
His teammates gushed about his return to the lineup.
DE Calais Campbell:
I told you, “He’s special, man.” He’s the best linebacker in the league. He makes everybody else’s job easier because he’s so good. I’m looking forward to playing the rest of the season with him in there because he’s going to make my job a lot easier.
ILB Karlos Dansby:
The proof is in the pudding, man. The guy was flying around, making plays. He was all over the place.
DE Darnell Dockett:
It was amazing to see him go out there and do his thing. I’m glad that he’s back.
How did his performance look on tape? He was extraordinary in every aspect of the defense. It was a much-needed spark to a talented roster in need of its leader. The Cardinals (3-2, T-2nd place in the NFC West) defense was good already with Jasper Brinkley filling in for Washington.
Now it’s scary good.
Here is an in-depth look at Washington’s first day back at the office.
A season ago, Washington ranked as the seventh-best inside linebacker against the run according to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required). He sheds blockers well and quickly recognizes run plays. Those two elements, put together with his sideline-to-sideline speed, are the reason he is so good as a run defender.
The following three plays from Sunday’s game focus on the first two of those three skills. The latter will be discussed later.
3rd-and-1, Cam Newton up the Middle, No Gain
The game is tied at three apiece midway through the second quarter, and the Panthers are driving. It’s the ninth play of the drive, and Newton has slashed Arizona’s defense for 65 yards and has needed only one third down to do it.
The ball sits at the Arizona 15-yard line. It’s 3rd-and-1, and Newton has lined up in the shotgun with running back Mike Tolbert to his right and an unbalanced line in front of him—four linemen to the left of center, with a lineman and three tight ends to the right.
Just before the snap, Washington points to his left, the tight end side of the line, indicating he knows where the ball is about to go.
Newton takes the snap, but Washington beats him to the point of attack, taking down the 6’5”, 245-pound signal-caller at the line of scrimmage as he attempts a quarterback keeper to force fourth down.
Carolina would inexplicably go for it and fail rather than take points in a low-scoring game.
1st-and-10, DeAngelo Williams up the Middle, No Gain
Carolina has just received the opening kickoff of the second half and has the ball at its own 20-yard line. To this point in the game, running back DeAngelo Williams had been shut down—he carried seven times for 21 yards (3.0 yards per carry) in the first half, including four runs of two yards or fewer.
Newton lines up his offense in 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end) with tight end Ben Hartsock serving as the fullback in an offset I-formation.
Moments before the snap, Washington begins creeping toward the line in anticipation of the Williams run. As the ball is snapped, right guard Chris Scott pulls into the A-gap where Washington is headed, and the two meet in the hole.
Scott (6’4”, 320) is no match for No. 58 in black, as the third-year lineman is pushed to the side while Washington makes the tackle for no gain.
Note: This tackle was mistakenly given to outside linebacker John Abraham (No. 55). Should it be corrected, it would bring Washington’s total to 10 tackles.
2nd-and-10, Mike Tolbert up the Middle, 3-Yard Gain
This is the best play Washington made defending the run on Sunday. Not because of the tackle, because it is an average, everyday tackle. This play was made before Tolbert ever hit the hole.
You’ll notice on this play that three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil gets to the second level of Arizona’s defense quickly to clear the path for the bulldozing back. Only on this play, Kalil runs into the terror in the middle, Washington.
Again, Washington stones the bigger lineman, shoving Kalil (6’3”, 299) to his knees with no trouble en route to stopping Tolbert (5’9”, 243) in his tracks.
The key stop brought up a 3rd-and-long and set up Washington’s second sack of the game (which we will get to in a minute).
Washington is an outstanding pass-rushing inside linebacker. He recorded nine sacks from his ILB spot in 2012, tops in the NFL for his position and the most for a middle ‘backer since then-Baltimore Ravens ILB Bart Scott tallied 9.5 in 2006.
Sunday marked the third game in three-plus seasons that Washington notched at least two sacks, which is a franchise record for full-time inside linebackers.
3rd-and-9, Newton Sacked, Loss of 5
This play shows Washington’s football IQ and is a great representation of how quick he is. He may be the fastest inside linebacker in the league—if he’s not, he’s close.
There are 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter, and Carolina holds a 6-3 lead. A big-time pass rush is not needed quite yet, so Arizona initially rushes only three on this third-down play. With fellow inside linebacker Karlos Dansby taking away the attempted screen route of Tolbert and Washington spying Newton, as he had done most of the afternoon, the Cardinals have dropped six into coverage.
But this play turned into a perfectly timed delayed blitz from the Pro Bowler because Scott lost track of him in an attempt to stop what he thought was a blitzing Dansby.
Washington waits for Scott to look away, and the split second he does, he sprints toward Newton. Washington gets to Newton before he can make a run for the first-down marker, setting up a punting situation and giving Arizona’s offense a chance to take the lead—which it did on a 10-play, 77-yard drive culminating with a Rashard Mendenhall one-yard touchdown run.
3rd-and-7, Newton Sacked, Loss of 2
Washington’s second sack puts on display his closing speed. Keep in mind when you watch this that Newton ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at the combine before Carolina made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Yet another third down; this is the sack that followed Washington’s second-down stop of Tolbert highlighted above.
Coordinator Todd Bowles dials up a five-man blitz on this play, including rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Antoine Cason—which he did multiple times with success throughout the game.
Carolina keeps six men in to block in anticipation of the blitz, but Mathieu beats Tolbert with an inside move that sends Newton scrambling to his left.
Queue Washington’s speed.
The 6’2”, 236-pound linebacker alters his A-gap blitz and catches Newton from behind just before he reaches the line of scrimmage, setting up another punting situation and leading to another scoring drive for his team.
This time, Jay Feely would connect on a 50-yard field goal and extend the lead to 15-6 in favor of the Cardinals.
3rd-and-5, Newton Sacked, Loss of 11
His presence on the field is felt so greatly that he makes plays happen without making the play himself. This third-down sack comes courtesy of Dansby, but it’s set up by Carolina being too aware of Washington and forgetting about the 10-year veteran.
This took place earlier in the game, on the first play of the second quarter with Carolina leading, 3-0.
At the snap, Washington blitzes the B-gap to his left, drawing the attention of both Tolbert and right tackle Byron Bell. With RG Scott down-blocking defensive end Darnell Dockett, that leaves a wide-open A-gap for Dansby on a delayed blitz.
He is untouched in his pursuit of Newton, who can do nothing but surrender the sack, setting up a punt.
You’ve seen two examples of Washington’s speed on both his sacks of Newton. All this is intended to do is further illustrate his elite-level speed and show what was missing the first four games without him.
2nd-and-10, Newton Read-Option Keeper, 9-yard Gain
On this second-quarter play, Washington begins by covering tight end Greg Olsen in the event that Carolina would target him once more. Up to this point, Olsen had burned the Arizona defense for 50 yards on three receptions (16.7 yards per catch) and three first downs.
However, Washington quickly realized that Olsen was a blocker on the read-option play and ditched him in lieu of pursuing Newton as he took off to the defense’s left—on the other side of the field from where Washington had engaged Olsen.
It did not take him long to meet Newton and undrafted rookie safety Tony Jefferson one yard shy of the marker to save a first down.
It ultimately did not matter, as Carolina would convert the 3rd-and-1. But the next time Washington and Arizona’s defense is in that situation, it may matter. It could be with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.
No offense to Brinkley, who was inactive for this game, but he would not have made that play to stop Newton short of a first down. He simply is not fast enough to cover the ground Washington can cover.
Newton would have dragged Jefferson across the marker for an easy conversion. Had that been a key situation, it could have cost Arizona the game.
That is what Washington adds to the defense.
It’s clear Washington has worked hard to improve his coverage skills throughout his first three NFL seasons. Now in year four, he is adept at recognizing routes and does a great job of reading the opposing quarterback’s eyes.
That’s just what he did to Newton on this play.
3rd-and-3, Newton Intercepted, Returned 41 Yards
“I was in man-to-man and (spying) on Newton. He was looking my way, and I happened to go to that way and catch it and run.”
Newton was attempting to connect with wideout Steve Smith on a slant to convert a 3rd-and-short and extend a drive that had covered 52 yards on five plays. The play was big enough, thwarting a scoring opportunity. But this play came on the first play of the fourth quarter with Carolina sitting at the Arizona 11-yard line and trailing, 12-6.
You can’t get much more clutch than that.
Washington stepped in front of the Newton pass and nearly took it to the house. Had he, the roof may literally have been blown off the building with how raucous the crowd would have been.
Arizona’s offense has experienced all sorts of issues through the first five weeks of the 2013 NFL season. That it is 3-2 and a game out of first place in the division is not a miracle—it’s because of the elite defensive play it has received.
Now, with Washington back on the field “doing his thing,” as Dockett put it, the Cardinals are a cohesive offense away from being a real playoff contender in the NFC. Will they get there with the offense in its current condition?
Absolutely not. The bulk of the remaining schedule features legitimate playoff contenders and will not be easy to navigate. But if head coach Bruce Arians figures out a way to get quarterback Carson Palmer and Co. on track?
Watch out if you have this team on the schedule.
All quotes courtesy of Scott Bordow of AZCentral.com. All game footage courtesy of NFL.com.