Just before the 1980s era Chicago Bears became a Super Bowl contender, there were stories of the Buddy Ryan-led defense abusing the offense -- physically and verbally -- for its ineptitude.
We're not suggesting the Cardinals defense follow the same path, but really, what could it hurt? General manager Steve Keim, coach Bruce Arians and his staff have tried everything else to jolt the offense, including jettisoning left tackle Levi Brown, running back Beanie Wells and right guard Adam Snyder, while benching tackles Nate Potter and Bobby Massie. Nothing is working.
As the Cardinals head into Week 6 with a shocking 3-2 record, it appears the team's fortunes will rest solely on the backs of the defensive players.
The problem with that? The competition is about to upgrade significantly. Starting Sunday in San Francisco, and with a short week to prepare next week, the Cards will face the 49ers, Seattle (on Thursday, Oct. 17), Atlanta and then Houston after a bye. Those four opponents were all among the final eight standing in the 2013 postseason.
Daryl Washington's return had clearly boosted the confidence, ability and versatility of this defense. Getting nose tackle Dan Williams back also helped the Cards' already staunch run defense, which is ranked second statistically in the NFL. But at some point, it's going to take more than 13 or 19 points (the defense got a safety Sunday) from the offense to win a game. And at some point, the defense won't be able to set the table like it has the past two weeks.
That's the cold, hard reality staring the Cardinals in the face, but let's leave that for later in the week and take a quick look back at Sunday's spectacular defensive (and putrid offensive) effort.
Can we cite two by ILB Daryl Washington? They came on consecutive series in the fourth quarter. With the Cardinals leading, 12-6, Carolina was at the Cards' 11-yard line when Washington read Newton's eyes, stepped in front of a pass intended for Steve Smith and returned the interception to the 50. After a quick Cards' series (there's not much else these days) Washington sacked Newton on third-and-7 to force a punt, and the Cards got close enough for Jay Feely's 50-yard field goal with 3:38 left for a 15-6 lead. Welcome back, Daryl.
RB Andre Ellington: There wasn't much to choose, but Ellington rushed seven times for 52 yards (7.4 average) and caught all four balls on which he was targeted for 34 yards. Before you ask, no, he won't be replacing Rashard Mendenhall in the starting lineup. He doesn’t have the body type for it. Arians likes his role at 30 to 35 plays combined running and receiving.
ILB Daryl Washington: There were plenty of candidates (including Calais Campbell and Karlos Dansby), but Washington made a triumphant return from his four-game suspension so we'll give it to him even if there were a few hiccups in coverage. Washington had a team-high nine tackles (eight solos), a team-high three TFLs, two sacks, two QB hits, a pass defensed and the crucial, aforementioned interception.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED
The defense has the horses: Washington was suspended four games to start the season. Both starting outside linebackers (four total) are injured and lost for the season. Safety Rashad Johnson is still out with that infamous fingertip issue, and Dan Williams missed two games due to his father's death. No matter that, and no matter the switch in coordinators from Ray Horton to Todd Bowles. Arizona's defense is tough, and it keeps proving it. Patrick Peterson is a Pro Bowl player in the secondary, Washington is a Pro Bowl player in the linebacking corps, and defensive end Calais Campbell is a Pro Bowl-caliber player on the line.
The wave won't die: With a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, fans at University of Phoenix Stadium started doing the wave while the Cardinals had the ball. We had hoped that this horribly dated and annoying cheer had gone the way of big hair. Clearly, it has not. Then again, big hair is also making a comeback.
The offense is still broken: Levi Brown is gone, but the lousy offense remains. Carson Palmer completed 19 of 28 passes for a paltry 175 yards and three interceptions for a passer rating of 57. Running back Rashard Mendenhall rushed 17 times for 43 yards (2.4 average). Tight end Rob Housler was a no-show againm and the offensive line -- well, don't the stats speak for themselves?
Linebacker Kenny Demens (hamstring) was the only addition to the Cards' injured payers that Arians mentioned on Monday. He is doubtful this week, but the Cards should get linebacker Jasper Brinkley (groin) and safety Rashad Johnson (finger) back for their game in San Francisco.
ODDS AND ENDS
– Arians said receiver Andre Roberts was more effective when he played inside early in the season, but when tight end Rob Housler came back, Roberts moved outside and became less effective. The coaches are talking about potential remedies, but Arians also noted that Housler (two catches, 36 yards this season) is a “work in progress. He wasn't quite on the same page as Carson (Palmer).”
– Arians said the team won't change its practice or rest schedules to prepare for next week’s Thursday night game against Seattle, just four days after Sunday's game in San Francisco.
-- The Cards' seven sacks on Sunday were the most for the team in a single game since recording eight vs. Dallas on Sept. 13, 1987, the Cardinals' final season in St. Louis. It was also just the second time the Cardinals defense has recorded seven-plus sacks and three-plus interceptions in a game since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. The only other time came on Dec. 18, 1983 vs. Philadelphia (11 sacks, four INTs).
-- Linebackers Washington, Karlos Dansby and defensive end Campbell all had two sacks against the Panthers. Prior to Sunday’s game, the last time the Cardinals had at least three players with at least two sacks in a game was Dec. 7, 1986, at Philadelphia when four players (Al Baker, Freddie Joe Nunn, Leonard Smith and Antony Bell) accomplished the feat.
-- After shutting down the Panthers in the second half on Sunday, the Cardinals have not allowed a second-half point in their last two games. In their three wins this season, the Cardinals have allowed just seven points in the second half.
-- Through five games, the Cardinals feature the NFL’s second-ranked run defense, allowing just 79 yards per game. Only Denver (69.6) is allowing fewer rushing yards per game. Arizona’s defense leads the NFL with 22 rushes for negative yards (non-kneeldowns).
-- After establishing an NFL single-season record with 46 punts landing inside the 20-yard line in 2012, Dave Zastudil has landed 16 punts inside the 20-yard line through five games this season, including two on Sunday. That leads the NFL.
-- Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is one of seven NFL players with a sack, a forced fumble and an interception this season. He and Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso are the only rookies to do it.
-- Through five games, the Cardinals defense has been on the field for 345 plays. Karlos Dansby has played all 345 snaps.
At San Francisco, Sunday at 1:25 p.m.: Following back-to-back losses to Indianapolis and Seattle, the 49ers look like the 49ers again. They outscored St. Louis and Houston by a combined 69-14 in two wins. Teams were taking the read option away from QB Colin Kaepernick early, but the offense is back on track, and the defense was dominant in Sunday's win over the Texans, forcing four turnovers in a 34-3 win.