Sneaky Strong

Don't look now, but behind a revitalized defense the Cardinals are stalking the leaders in the NFC
December 14, 2009

As he made his way out of the Cardinals' locker room late Sunday night, Larry Fitzgerald was dressed for the runway, in a custom-fit windowpane blazer, a tie perfectly centered in a Windsor knot and alligator shoes buffed to a reflective shine. The only thing sharper than the All-Pro receiver's outfit was Arizona's 30--17 whipping of the favored Vikings at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Take note, NFC. The Cardinals' domination of 10--2 Minnesota suggests they'll have a major say about who makes it to Miami in February. While the Arizona offense was typically productive—Kurt Warner threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns; Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin combined for 15 catches and 241 yards; and the run game averaged 4.5 yards a carry—what has gone largely unrecognized in Arizona's climb to 8--4 is the defense, which against the Vikings played like an elite unit. On Sunday the Cardinals sacked Brett Favre three times and intercepted him twice, and they held the explosive Adrian Peterson to 19 yards on 13 rushing attempts, the second-worst outing of his career. "We didn't do anything special," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said afterward. "We didn't re-create the wheel. We just played solid football and made our plays."

The performance was all the more impressive considering it came on the heels of a 20--17 loss at Tennessee in which the Cardinals allowed Vince Young and the Titans to drive 99 yards in 18 plays for the winning touchdown as time expired. Three days later first-year defensive coordinator Billy Davis was still sneaking peeks at the game film in hopes of making sense of the collapse. "It's hard to spit that one out," he said last week.

His players had no such problem against the Vikings in a nationally televised prime-time showdown. "We knew this game would be on a big stage, and we just wanted to come out and play well early," safety Adrian Wilson said. "We're growing every week. This was a big step for us."

Davis's points of emphasis since taking over have been threefold: limiting big plays, improving third-down efficiency and reducing points allowed. He's taking fewer risks than his predecessor, Clancy Pendergast, especially with blitzes, and he's matching schemes to his players' strengths—using cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie more in man coverage, for instance, and playing the hard-hitting Wilson closer to the line to stop the run. Opponents are converting on only 33.1% of their third downs, compared with 44.4% in 2008, and opposing offenses are averaging only 18.9 points a game, nearly a touchdown less than a year ago. The sole area in which the Arizona defense hasn't made great strides is the big play: The Cards have allowed nine touchdown passes of 20 yards or more, after surrendering a league-high 13 in '08.

"I'm proud of the improvements," Davis says, "but there's so much more this group can accomplish. They know it too."

Now on SI.com

Peter King analyzes the Week 14 matchups in the Game Plan, at SI.com/nfl

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WILSON)A.D.? N-O Wilson and Arizona held the explosive Peterson to 19 yards on 13 carries.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)