TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s a popular saying on NFL staffs that players make coaches. Nobody knows that better than Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
One year ago, he inherited a mess in Philadelphia when then-Eagles coach Andy Reid fired Juan Castillo six games into the 2012 season and gave Bowles the reins of a defense that finished 29th in scoring (27.8 points per game) and 26th in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (41).
There were more than a few eyebrows raised when first-year Cardinals coach Bruce Arians hired Bowles to oversee the Arizona defense, but 11 games into the 2013 season, Bowles has regained his boy-wonder status. He’s a defensive genius again.
“I never knew I was a genius in the first place,” Bowles said, laughing.
Following a dominant performance against the Colts, Arizona’s talented defense is ranked eighth in the league in total yards and points per game and second against the run. Bowles takes the high road whenever discussing last season’s debacle in Philadelphia, but he’ll have a chance to show off his work when the Cardinals face the Eagles and former Arizona defensive coordinator Billy Davis on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
He may also be facing his greatest test of the season: Chip Kelly’s up-tempo, zone-read offense, which attempts to tire defenses out and catch them out of position with its fast pace and quick snaps that limit the amount of personnel substitutions a defense can make.
“It’s a challenge because it’s a different offense. San Francisco runs some … and Seattle,” Bowles said of the zone read. “Their whole offense is based like that. Your guys have to be ready to play; their mindset has to change in certain situations.”
The Cardinals have been preparing for it all week, starting with their pregame warm-up simulation on Wednesday, when they were running players on and off the field at top speed.
“A lot of times, we’re going to have to play with the unit that’s on the field,” safety Yeremiah Bell said. “You like to switch when you can, but that’s when they’re trying to catch you, with a guy running on or running off. They try to hit you then with a big play. In some situations it would be better to sub, but we know going in that might not be possible.”
It’s not just the substitutions that present challenges.
“Communication will be at a premium,” Arians said. “When you’re going against a team that doesn’t huddle and is an up-tempo thing, getting the right calls, getting everybody in the proper alignments is the hardest thing, because it’s really tough to simulate in practice.
“That’s one of the things we’ll have to do in the first quarter is get acclimated quickly to the tempo of the game.”
LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,009 yards, is priority No. 1 for the Cardinals, Arians said, but the Eagles have been far more balanced since Nick Foles took over at QB. McCoy has topped 80 rushing yards just once in the past five weeks while Foles has thrown 16 touchdown passes with zero interceptions and receiver Riley Cooper has 278 yards and five touchdowns in the past three weeks.
Much has been made of the Cardinals’ four-game winning streak — three of those victories came at home and three came against teams with teams with a combined record of 6-27 — but Philadelphia has won three in a row as it looks to overtake Dallas for the NFC East title.
“It’s a road game, man,” Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “Ain’t none of those ever easy in the NFL — and definitely not this week with the way this team plays.”