When the Arizona Cardinals hired Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to replace Dennis Green as head coach, they hoped that he would bring elements of the Steelers' culture out west with him. Part of that cultural adjustment meant a transition from a 4-3 defensive front to a 3-4 scheme.
With the off-season switch to Bill Davis as defensive coordinator, 2009 presents a strong opportunity to take the next step in the development of Arizona's 3-4. Davis will not go into the transition empty handed; he inherits a roster filled with play-makers and accomplished veterans.
Let's take a look at the 3-4 and some of the players that will be key to its success in Arizona.
The transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 means that instead of four down linemen, there are now only three—a defensive tackle and two defensive ends. The 3-4 places greater responsibility for gap control on these three linemen, as they are now expected to handle all five offensive linemen and plug up the running lanes between them.
Defensive linemen in the 3-4 tend to be bigger, space-filler types, while some of the smaller, speed-oriented ends from the 4-3 shift to outside linebacker.
In order for the Cardinals to make a successful transition in 2009, they need strong performances at defensive tackle. Fortunately, tackle is an area of strength in Arizona, beginning with Darnell Dockett.
Dockett, the anchor of the d-line, made the Pro Bowl in 2007 and recorded 49 tackles and four sacks last season. In addition to a strong season from Dockett, the Cards will be counting on contributions from Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson, as well as former second-round selection Alan Branch, who is in danger of being labeled a bust.
Defensive ends Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry have gotten looks at outside linebacker in the past and seem to be strong candidates to make the move permanently in the 3-4.
Okeafor finished second on the team in sacks and fifth on the team in tackles last season, while Berry led the club in sacks. Both have battled injuries, and Berry has lost a step to age, but given the opportunity to rush frequently from the edge in the 3-4, don't be surprised if either player registers a monster year.
The 3-4 transition means the opposite for linebackers. They pick up a second middle linebacker, making four total. The 3-4 places a premium on speedy inside linebackers who are versatile enough to help the d-line fill the running lanes while still being able to make plays beyond the line of scrimmage. The outside linebackers tend to be strong rushers who can also get to running backs once they get outside of the tackles.
Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes, first and third on the team in tackles a year ago, should be able to make the plays and lead a strong core on the inside. Dansby should also contribute to the pass rush, as he has averaged nearly five sacks a season over the course of his career.
The team drafted Cody Brown, a defensive end out of Connecticut, this year with the idea of grooming him as an outside linebacker for their new 3-4 system. Brown joins Berry and Okeafor on the outside providing the pass rush.
The 3-4 leaves a team with a four-man secondary. The defensive backs are obviously responsible for picking up and shutting down receivers, but with only a three man front, they are frequently used in the pass rush.
The Cardinals secondary is in a transitional period but could potentially be one of the team's strong suits.
The starters at cornerback entering 2008, Eric Green and Rod Hood, are gone. In their place are 2008 first-round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and free-agent acquisition Bryant McFadden. The team also bolstered its secondary through the draft, selecting safety Rashad Johnson in the third round and cornerback Greg Toler in the fourth.
Three of the Cardinals' top six tacklers in 2008 were safeties. Former first-round pick Antrel Rolle made the successful transition from cornerback last year and finished second on the team with 89 tackles.
Aaron Francisco finished sixth on the team with 56 tackles, and Adrian Wilson finished fourth with 75 en route to his second Pro Bowl appearance. Wilson could be a player who flourishes in the 3-4 as a major factor in the team's pass rush.
The Cardinals have gotten away from using Wilson as a blitzer the past couple of seasons after he notched eight sacks in 2005 and five more in 2006. Wilson has proven himself a versatile weapon and could play a huge part in the success of the team's 3-4 transition.
With changes at both coordinator positions, the Cardinals play-calling should certainly look different on both sides of the ball in 2009. However, with an emphasis on a 3-4 transition, the Cardinals defensive adjustments are certainly something to keep an eye on.