Cardinals defense looks to shore up costly letdowns
TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Bowles is gone, but not much has changed in the defensive philosophy of the Arizona Cardinals under new coordinator James Bettcher.
They play aggressive up front, they are wont to blitz from all angles. The secondary, embracing the nickname "No Fly Zone," is deep, talented and opportunistic.
So when things don’t go well, when a costly letdown or two leads to defeat — such as Sunday in a 25-13 loss at Pittsburgh — fans and other onlookers might point the finger at Bettcher. He’s just 37 and has coached in the NFL for only three seasons.
That blame would be misplaced, said Frostee Rucker, a defensive tackle in his 10th NFL season.
"He’s doing well," Rucker said. "The best thing about him is we’re running some of the same stuff that we did before and he’s calling good games. We’re just not executing at crucial points of the game and those games we’ve didn’t execute, we lost. There’s no really pointing fingers at him or anything like that. It’s all self-inflicted on us."
Bowles, now off to a strong start as head coach of the New York Jets, carried a certain gravitas. He played for a Super Bowl championship team and worked his way up the NFL ladder.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians didn’t want to change the defensive scheme, so he turned to his outside linebackers coach Bettcher to take the job. Except for those few letdowns, the results have been good.
"Bettch isn’t a new guy," Rucker said. "He’s been here, so we do have relationships with him, and I like fighting for him. It’s our job to make him right, no matter what he calls. We’ve taken that on and we know that. We just have to keep improving."
The Cardinals rank sixth in the NFL in total defense, 16th against the run and seventh against the pass. There is an obvious confidence and pride on a team that includes the likes of defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
"The team knows that we do what we do and we do it well," Campbell said. "It really starts with the head coach and the front office. But on defense, Bettch is our general. He lines us up, he gets us in position and we go hard for him. He does a good job. He has a good game plan every week and we go out there and play very hard for him."
The Cardinals rank fourth overall in the NFL in takeaways (13) and lead the league in interceptions (11). But in their two losses, Arizona did not force one turnover. On Sunday, Mathieu dropped a sure interception.
Safety Rashad Johnson, who leads the team with three interceptions, said that, Monday night against Baltimore, there needs to be an added emphasis on forcing Ravens’ mistakes.
"We just have to be a little bit more straightforward about trying to cause those turnovers," he said. "We have to be more in synch, just going after the ball more, trying to punch it out. First guy in make the tackle, second guy rip it out. Try and get as many guys to the ball as we can. Everything can’t be an interception. We have to make sure we’re trying to cause fumbles, too."
Arizona’s defensive lapses against the Steelers came after third-string quarterback Landry Jones entered the game. Bettcher said the defensive game plan didn’t change because the Pittsburgh offense didn’t change. There were a handful of blitzes but little pressure. The Cardinals sent an extra man at the quarterback on what turned into the 88-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant that clinched the Steelers’ victory.
Sure, Bettcher said, he wishes he’d done a few things differently.
"Looking back it’s always 20-20," he said, "but you would have loved to have more pressure there. I look back and there’s certainly a couple of calls I want back, just like I’m sure a couple of plays each player defensively may want back. You certainly look at things critically. It’s never taken lightly."
But he won’t overreact when a thing or two goes wrong.
"You stay with the process," he said. "You don’t ride the wave. As soon as you ride the wave, the wheels fall off. Just like we ask our players, when a play happens, you go play the next play. You can’t worry about two plays ago."
And six games in, Bettcher said he’s loving this high-profile challenge of plotting schemes to thwart the opposition.
"You love the game, you love that stuff," he said. "I love the game."
- Arizona Cardinals
- Calais Campbell
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- Frostee Rucker
- Patrick Peterson
- Rashad Johnson
- Tyrann Mathieu