Arizona Cardinals Defense Improving, Expanding as 2011 NFL Season Rolls Along
When Ray Horton was lured away from the Pittsburgh Steelers and hired as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator after the 2010 season, the entire fan base lit up with excitement at the potential greatness he would bring to a struggling unit.
Then the lockout stripped the team of its opportunity to learn Horton’s complex, blitz-heavy scheme.
Even as the season began, fans of the organization held out hope that the veterans of the defense—that is, those who were familiar with the system from the time they spent in Pittsburgh—would be steadfast in their knowledge and have the ability to catch on quickly.
That would enable them to help the young players of the unit acclimate themselves to Horton’s needs.
Joey Porter, Clark Haggans and Nick Eason all played for the Steelers under Dick LeBeau, the longtime defensive coordinator, genius of the 3-4 defense and mentor to Horton. The scheme Horton brought with him was nearly identical to that of LeBeau.
Through Week 8, Arizona’s new-look defense was flat-out bad. In a four-game span in October, they surrendered 127 points, an average of nearly 32 points per game.
The pass coverage was the culprit, allowing 297 yards per game through the air. That includes a paltry 169 yards from Donovan McNabb before he was benched in favor of rookie Christian Ponder. The pass rush was not getting to opposing quarterbacks to take pressure off of the very young and inexperienced corners.
In November they began to play as Horton and everyone within the organization would like, giving up only 18 PPG and 213 passing YPG in four games.
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Some attribute that to the absence of one of the very players who was entrusted with the roll of an on-the-field coach at the commencement of the campaign: Joey Porter.
His performance was flaccid, chalking up only one sack through Week 7 as the full-time starter at outside linebacker. Fourth-round draft pick Sam Acho out of the University of Texas supplanted Porter in the lineup after Porter suffered a knee injury, and all he has done in six starts since is collect five sacks (second on the team) and force three fumbles (leads the team).
Defensive end Calais Campbell has been the star of the line. He leads the team with six sacks and has impressively blocked three kicks so far. He is in a contract year and has yet to be offered anything tangible, much to the chagrin of Cardinals fans. He has been arguably the best defender for Arizona in 2011 and deserves a payday.
With the news coming in late November via Darren Urban of azcardinals.com that Horton was using only about half the defensive playbook for the better part of the season, the prospect of Arizona’s defense looks exponentially brighter than it did even one month ago.
The blitz packages were so good and had the offensive line so confused that Haggans at one point was able to get to and sack Romo virtually unblocked, even though the Cardinals rushed only three on the play.
What should Calais Campbell do if the Cardinals do not renew his contract by the time the 2011 season comes to an end?
“We are probably right now where I wish we would have been Week 2,” Horton told azcardinals.com. “It’s been fun, because these guys want to be good and they want to come after people. I have now supreme confidence to call anything on my list. If you go back to the Seattle game Week 3, there was nothing on our list to call.”
With the Cardinals still in contention for a playoff spot, the defense will play a major role in giving the team a chance over the remaining games of the regular season.
It begins with the biggest game of the year Sunday at home against the arch-rival San Francisco 49ers, who have already locked up the division. A win against the 49ers—who are 10-2—would not only avenge a 23-7 loss at San Francisco in Week 11, but it would give credence to the fact that this defense has turned a corner.
We all know it won’t be an offensive explosion that propels the team to victory; the 49ers defense won’t allow it.
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