Cards’ Washington grows into elite linebacker

As a student of the game, it isn’t surprising to learn that Arizona inside linebacker Daryl Washington likes to watch offseason video of the NFL’s all-time greats.

Jack Lambert, Ray Lewis and Mike Singletary are among the names on Washington’s viewing list.

But so is someone who never played the position: The late Sean Taylor.

Mind you, Taylor had traits that some of the best linebackers share. He displayed them during a four-year NFL career as a star safety with the Washington Redskins before his 2007 murder.

“That’s one of guys I always admired,” Washington told in a telephone interview. “I like the way he played. He could run, hit and intimidate guys.

“I never considered myself as just a linebacker even in high school or college. I always considered myself just an athlete would could do many different things. That’s what I thought Sean Taylor was — a big, physical guy.”

With the way he has dominated this season, Washington himself may someday become the prototype for what a standout defender should play like.

Cardinals coaches have credited Washington with 71 tackles, eight sacks, 11 quarterback pressures, nine tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. It’s considered a mere formality that he will break Arizona’s single-season linebacker sack record of 10 set by Ken Harvey in 1990. Washington also has a legitimate shot at topping defensive end Simeon Rice’s all-time franchise mark of 16.5.

Making such productivity even more impressive, Washington isn’t affecting the quarterback from the outside where most 3-4 pass-rushers like Green Bay’s Clay Matthews flourish. The NFL’s next highest sack total among inside linebackers is three by Pittsburgh’s Larry Foote.

“I stay mostly on the weak-side of the ball, so pretty much I’m the guy in this defense who’s made to make plays whenever we have the opportunity to make them,” Washington said.

Unless the Packers are on their game, Washington could be bolstering his statistical totals once again. No quarterback has gotten sacked more this season than Aaron Rodgers (28), which is an especially damning total considering his lightning-fast release. The Cardinals also lead the league with the highest percentage of sacks per pass attempt.

“We have the best quarterback in the league,” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga told “We need to continue to make sure he’s upright and getting all the time he can get.”

That means keeping Washington and an aggressive Cardinals defense in check. Bulaga said the Cardinals use more inside linebacker blitzes than the typical 3-4 defense.

“He’s elusive and extremely, extremely quick,” Bulaga said of Washington. “He’s got good hands so when they’re running that inside blitz, he’s able to make contact with the blocker, shed him real quick and has the speed to chase down a quarterback. It’s pretty incredible.”

After a strong 2011 campaign, the Cardinals knew they had a special player on their hands. That’s one of the reasons Washington was signed to a six-year, $32.5 million extension in September despite having two seasons remaining on the rookie contract he signed as a 2010 second-round draft pick from Texas Christian.

This was reason to celebrate for a player who grew up in difficult financial circumstances being raised along with two brothers by his mother Barbara. But any excitement from those riches is being tempered by Arizona’s offensive struggles that have led to a four-game losing streak after a 4-0 start.

“We have to continue to stay positive,” Washington said. “We win or lose as a team. We can’t get down that we’ve lost four games because we have eight more to play. We just want try take advantage of those and find a way to get one win. The rest will come along.”

But no matter what happens with the Cardinals the rest of the season, Washington definitely has arrived among the NFL’s elite defenders.