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Defense In The Cards

Posted Sep 24, 2012

Horton's unit off to hot start, but players say they can get better

Linebacker Daryl Washington (58) steps over fallen Eagles quarterback Michael Vick after bringing Vick down in Sunday's 27-6 Cardinals' victory.

Vonnie Holliday wasn’t sure if he wanted to return to play a 15th NFL year.

The years had taken a toll, and retirement was becoming an annual consideration. The veteran defensive end mulled the details, and one that he couldn’t escape was what the Cardinals’ defense had become by the end of the 2011 season – and what it still could be.

“It was, ‘Why not?’ ” Holliday recalled. “You knew this could be something special.”

Three games does not special make. If there is anything the players and their head coach want to emphasize about this defensive unit it’s that nothing is proven yet.

The difficulty with that concept is that there is a lot of tangible evidence Holliday knew of what he thought back in the offseason. In three weeks, the Cardinals are tops in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 13.3 points a game. That’s having faced two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses in New England with quarterback Tom Brady and Philadelphia with quarterback Michael Vick. The Eagles were leading the NFL in offensive yards before the Cardinals got to them Sunday.

In allowing just two touchdowns in 36 possessions, the Cards have given their work-in-progress offense time to grow. With Seattle and Green Bay still to play Monday night, the Cardinals are all over the NFL defensive leaderboard: Second in sacks (12), tied for first in both forced and recovered fumbles (four each), third in red-zone percentage (22.2 percent) and eighth in third-down defense (33 percent). Seven different players have collected a sack.

“The only numbers we care about,” defensive end Calais Campbell said, “are the ones at the end of the year.”

That’s not totally true. The defense has embraced the idea it is the backbone of the 3-0 start, the real number every player – offense or defense – is watching. There won’t be a lot of discussion of what the unit can be, however. It’s a non-starter with the head coach and that’s trickled down to his players.

“Potential doesn’t mean anything unless you sustain it over a period of time,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I’m not big on potential. I like the way our defense is playing. We’ve got some things we’ve got to correct. … (But) it’s a great feeling to see our defense playing the way they are.”

Holliday said it’s been a “pleasure” to be around the unit both on the field on Sundays and in the meeting rooms, watching the video of the various performances. Yet there is work, Holliday said, like dealing with how teams have spread out the Cardinals in their nickel defense and still found a way to run the ball. That, Holliday said, needs to get better.

Those are the kind of things the defense keeps in mind when the praise comes full blast.

“You stay humble because you don’t become full of yourself,” linebacker Paris Lenon said. “You don’t make crazy statements. That’s staying humble. But the belief in what we do and how we play is the swagger. We don’t have to talk about it. We don’t have to put on a show. Our time comes on Sunday.”

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said the Friday before the Eagles game his unit had its best week of practice “ever.” It’s practice, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, which has buoyed the defense and made sure “nothing is leaking through the cracks.” Motivation across the unit is strong.

“We’re not afraid to lose,” Dockett said. “We’re not afraid to do things bad. We are afraid of letting guys down that are doing it right.”

There’s a bit of irony in that statement, since Dockett was one of the last to buy in to Horton’s scheme a year ago. Holliday admits he wasn’t sure if Horton’s plan was going to work in Arizona, if instead the Cardinals’ talent and the scheme just wouldn’t mesh.

Midway through last season, though, Holliday realized he needn’t have worried. The defense came together so well that Holliday just couldn’t picture not being part of it, and he can see what it just may become on the horizon.

“It’s evolving,” safety Kerry Rhodes said. “We didn’t play lights out (Sunday). We played good, but we didn’t play perfect. That just fuels us every week to get better. If we play the perfect game, we’re going to be hard to beat.”

EXTRA POINTS

Whisenhunt didn’t update the injuries of running back Beanie Wells (toe) or Dockett (hamstring) Monday. He did declare that tight end Todd Heap (knee) and safety Adrian Wilson (groin), both of whom sat out against the Eagles, were close to playing and he hoped both would return this week. …

The Cardinals added former Arizona State receiver Kerry Taylor to the practice squad to fill the void of suspended practice squad receiver Gerell Robinson. Robinson was suspended by the NFL on Friday. Multiple reports said it was for four games for violating the agreement on performance-enhancing drugs.

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