NFL: Where Does the Arizona Cardinals Defense Rank?

Elyssa GutbrodContributor ISeptember 14, 2011

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 11:  Tight end Jeremy Shockey #80 of the Carolina Panthers catches a pass against cornerback Patrick Peterson #21 of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL season opening game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on September 11, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Carindals defeated the Panthers 28-21.   (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last Sunday in Arizona, rookie QB Cam Newton made his debut in the NFL by passing for 422 yards, two touchdowns, and just one interception against the Arizona Cardinals. He capped off his record-breaking day by rushing for a third touchdown.

By all outward appearances, he tore the Cardinals defense to shreds. The question must be posed: Is the Cardinals defense really that bad, or is Cam Newton really that good?

The real truth about Arizona’s apparent struggles on defense and Cam Newton’s potential for awesomeness will come out as the season progresses, but the answer is probably somewhere in between those two extremes.

On the surface, it appears that the Arizona defense put in a terrible showing against the Carolina Panthers. The 477 total yards they gave up to Carolina put them at tied with the Green Bay Packers for third most in the league after Week 1.

The Cardinals may have allowed big plays when the Panthers were deep in their own territory (between the Panthers 21 and 50 yard lines Newton’s quarterback rating was an astounding 142.6), but they became stingier as the Panthers got closer to the red zone. Within the red zone, Newton’s passer rating dropped to just 39.6. He was only able to capitalize on longer plays farther from the end zone.

Behind the embarrassing total yards the defense conceded, though, is a lopsided story. Although Cam Newton walked all over the Cardinals, the Panthers running game basically stalled at the line of scrimmage. The team allowed just 74 yards on the ground in 27 rushing attempts—a respectable 2.7 average yards per carry.

Also notable is that although the Panthers marched all over the Cardinals in terms of yardage, the Cardinals were able to contain the Panthers to 21 points—14th in the league after the first week of football.

Put together, Arizona’s offense was able to do an adequate (but not great) job of stopping the run game, and an okay job of containing the passing game, but not stopping it. At the end of the day, though, the defense got the job done with a last-minute fourth down stand, securing a win when it counted the most.

Last year, the Cardinals were nearly last in the league both offensively and defensively. So far this year, it seems that Coach Ken Whisenhunt’s rebuilding goals are already starting to come to fruition.

Compared to other teams around the league, their overall defensive performance last week puts the Cardinals pretty close to the middle of the pack. Considering that their opponent was the Panthers, I would bump them down towards the bottom-middle.

More importantly, though, they do seem to have some pieces in place that can mesh into a better defense than they showed in Week 1 as the season progresses. If the defense can continue to do their thing against the run, they’ll be free to focus more energy on stopping teams in the air.

The Cardinals will not be a team that has an elite defense in the 2011 season, but they may yet evolve into a decent defense that can get the job done. The jury is still out on whether that will be enough to give them success in the weak NFC West division.