FOR ALL of the confusion that a 3--4 scheme can create for opposing offenses, it can also result in uncertainty for the defense, which is why Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton is pacing behind the linebackers on the D-line during a Monday-morning walk-through. "I don't care if they know what we're doing," he says of the opponents. "I want us to know."
This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2012 issue
Horton's starters didn't play with clarity or cohesion in Arizona's first two preseason games. They allowed the Saints to go 77 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown on their opening possession, then gave up touchdowns on the first two series against the Chiefs the following week.
When the team reconvened three days later in Flagstaff, the tranquillity of a sun-filled morning 7,000 feet above sea level was broken by the man wearing black shorts, a white long-sleeved T-shirt and a white visor.
"Understand the defense," Horton tells his players in a voice that lingers between a bark and a bite. "It's not that complicated. Talk. Talk."
Horton, in his second season as the commander on defense, spent seven years with the Steelers as a defensive backs coach and was instrumental in the development of All-Pros Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. The expectation in Arizona was to replicate the success Horton had in Pittsburgh, in which the Steelers led the league in defense in 2004, '07 and '08. After struggling early last season because the lockout prohibited coaches from having contact with players, the defense began to figure out the 3--4. The unit went from surrendering at least 30 points in four consecutive games to holding opponents to 23 or fewer over the final nine, including five in which it did not allow more than one touchdown.
But instead of moving forward, Arizona moonwalked through consecutive losses to open the 2012 preseason. Heightening the team's anxiety was the uncertainty at quarterback, where neither '11 starter Kevin Kolb nor backup John Skelton was inspiring much confidence.
"I'm very encouraged by our young guys, but our starters have a little ways to go," Horton said after the walk-through. "I'm glad we have five preseason games to get this straight. We put a lot of new stuff in, so there's a little bit of a learning curve. I think we were a little full of ourselves at the end of last season. Now hopefully we're refocused."
There is no question that talent abounds on defense. The line features standouts Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, who combined for 11½ sacks last season, and Dan Williams, who is in the best shape of his career and finally appears ready to live up to the expectations that made him a first-round pick two years ago. Horton believes third-year linebacker Daryl Washington could be headed for stardom. Safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes have each been All-Pro, and second-year cornerback Patrick Peterson appears determined to join the conversation of "best in the game" at his position.
"The problem right now is inconsistency," says Wilson. "Our guys get the call, they know the call, but it's the small techniques, the nuances of the 3--4, that aren't getting done. It's not lack of effort. It's mental, but we still have time to get it right and go into the season the way we want."
At this point the Cardinals need something to hang their hats on to start the season. Until the situation at quarterback is settled, it won't be the offense. The running game also has question marks because Beanie Wells is coming off surgery in January on his right knee and appeared tentative when he returned to practice midway through training camp.
"There seems to be an assumption that the defense will have to carry us," says coach Ken Whisenhunt. "That's not the intention. With Beanie and Ryan [Williams, who missed the 2011 season with a ruptured patellar tendon] coming back, with our tight ends [Todd Heap and Jeff King] and with the addition of Michael Floyd at wide receiver, I think we've got a chance to do some things and put up points that will take the pressure off our defense."
If not, Horton will be there, peering from under his visor, pacing through the middle of the unit, making sure his guys understand what's going on and are ready to perform. Talking. Talking.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 19
Passes batted down at the line of scrimmage by 6'8", 300-pound fourth-year defensive end Calais Campbell, the most in the league.
Completion percentage by Cardinals quarterbacks on passes targeting Larry Fitzgerald. Don't blame Fitzgerald—he had just three drops.
Combined sacks, hits and hurries allowed by Jeff King—a high for tight ends—despite his staying in to pass-protect on only 87 occasions.