TEMPE, Ariz. – Until the Cardinals can shore up their run defense, the defensive line will come under scrutiny despite its wealth of talent. The Cardinals finished 29th against the run last season (137 yards per game), and that simply won’t do.
Previous defensive coordinator Ray Horton said those numbers were overrated and that points allowed and turnovers were the keys to a successful defense. New coach Bruce Arians agrees in part, but he still wants to see a better effort against the run.
Part of that could come through a change in scheme under new coordinator Todd Bowles, who will release Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell to get upfield and make more plays rather than focusing on gaps. Part of it could come from changes on the depth chart as the Cards got younger and, they believe, stouter at the point of attack.
Starters: DT Darnell Dockett, NT Dan Williams, DE Calais Campbell
Reserves: DT Ronald Talley, DE Frostee Rucker, NT Alameda Ta’amu
Can Dockett return to form? Dockett’s combined tackle and sack totals have dropped each of the past three seasons (34 and 1.5 in 2012), leading to speculation that the 32-year old Florida State product is on the decline. Arians and Dockett both dismiss that notion, noting that Dockett’s responsibilities under defensive coordinator Ray Horton were different, requiring him to plug gaps and create opportunities for others rather than get upfield and make plays. There’s some credence to that notion, but then how to explain Calais Campbell’s continued ability to make plays at the other end of the line? This is a pivotal season for Dockett in that light. If he can’t recapture some of his magic, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cardinals move on next season given his escalating cap hits the next two seasons ($8.75 million, $9.8 million) before he becomes a free agent.
Will Dan Williams finally become the elite nose tackle the Cards envisioned? Injuries have hampered Williams’ progress a bit. He missed the final six games of his second season with a broken arm and the better part of two games last season with a hamstring injury. It’s pretty simple: If Williams can be stout at the point of attack, occupy blockers and stuff the run, the Cards have a good chance to improve their poor rushing defense. Williams has been battling an ankle injury but is expected to play in the season opener.
Is Calais Campbell the best player on this defense? Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington may have something to say about it, but the 6-foot-8 Campbell has emerged as a consistent pass rushing threat (27.5 sacks in four seasons) and has improved dramatically against the run. He still has a tendency to get too high in his stance — a common problem for tall players — but his intelligence, his work ethic and his progress put him in the conversation. One more question: Is Dockett’s presence holding the deferential Campbell back from becoming a leader on this unit?
Is the depth better? In the most surprising move of all the roster cuts, Ronald Talley beat out David Carter because Arians felt Talley, another holdover from last year, was stronger at the point of attack. Carter was considered the most versatile of the backups last season with aging veterans Nick Eason and Vonnie Holliday near the end of their careers. At the other positions, the Cards also opted for youth. Frostee Rucker, 29, can play end and tackle and brings another pass rusher to the table. Alameda Ta’amu gives the Cards another big body (350 pounds), but the 2012 fourth-round pick was released by the Steelers after a lackluster rookie season. He was involved in an auto accident after which he was placed on probation after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and drunken driving stemming from a series of crashes and a police chase. The jury is out on whether the depth has genuinely improved, but it should be mentioned that run stuffer Matt Shaughnessy and pass rusher John Abraham may also line up as quasi-ends in certain formations. Both were significant additions to the roster.
Outlook: The Cards defensive line has been the perceived strength of the unit for a few seasons, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, specifically from Dockett and Williams. The Cards figure to display a variety of looks under Bowles, who will be under the microscope both for his relative inexperience and for the fact that he is following the popular and successful Horton.