Cardinals notebook: Defense finally a strength

The Cardinals enter the offseason confident that they’ve successfully addressed the defensive weaknesses that have hampered them for years.

A year ago, coach Ken Whisenhunt hired his third defensive coordinator in five years when he brought in Ray Horton. Whisenhunt had fired the other two as he pursued someone who would install a system similar to that of the Steelers.

He finallly found that coach in Horton, as assistant in Pittsburgh for seven seasons. And for the first time in years, the defense was the strength of the team. Over the latter half of the season, the unit was steady, even dominant at times. And there is every reason to believe it could be better in 2012.

First, the players have spent a season under Horton and have learned his system. That’s not an easy thing to do, and without a training camp in 2011, Horton was limited in how quickly he could install his concepts.

That’s not the case now. The entire defense is in, and the players have bought into the philosophy. That took some time, too, because it requires unselfishness. End Darnell Dockett, for instance, had to accept playing a two-gap technique, which was different from what he had previously done. Strong safety Adrian Wilson had to accept blitzing less than in previous seasons. Everyone had to learn not to freelance. But by midseason, the group had bought in to Horton’s system.

Entering 2012, it appears as if the entire starting unit should return.

End Calais Campbell is an unrestricted free agent, and re-signing him is the No. 1 priority this offseason. The two sides have been talking about a long-term deal for months, but it’s uncertain if they’ll reach an agreement before free agency begins. The team, however, will keep Campbell one way or another, using the franchise or transition tag if necessary.

The Cardinals can’t afford to let Campbell go. He’s only 25 and had a breakout season in 2011. He led the team with eight sacks, deflected 11 passes, had one interception and blocked three field goals.

The next-biggest priority on defense is upgrading depth. The team has two young prospects at outside linebacker, Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield, but there isn’t much behind them.

Depth is also a concern at defensive end, so it makes sense to re-sign end Vonnie Holliday even though he will be 36 during the season.

Also on the bring-back list is Richard Marshall, who proved invaluable last season because of his ability to play both cornerback and safety.

Marshall signed a one-year contract a year ago. He began the season as the backup to both Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson at cornerback, then replaced Jefferson midway through the season. His real value, however, came when free safety Kerry Rhodes suffered a broken foot in the fifth game. Coaches didn’t feel comfortable playing backup safety Rashad Johnson in nickel situations, so they moved Marshall there. Marshall had never played safety before, but he performed remarkably well. At end of the season, Horton called him his most valuable player.

NOTES, QUOTES

— Coach Ken Whisenhunt has just one new face on his coaching staff this year, receivers coach Frank Reich, but he could have had more.

The team prevented John McNulty from taking the offensive coordinator’s position at Tampa Bay, instead moving McNulty from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach. And assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm talked to the Jaguars about their offensive line job. Grimm, who was not under contract at the time, used to work with Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey in Pittsburgh.

Mularkey said Grimm reached out to him, but Grimm said it was the Jaguars who called the Cardinals and asked for permission.

“They called and asked for permission,” Grimm said. “But my contract was up. I told them I was staying in Arizona. We have some unfinished business here.”

— Commissioner Roger Goodell recently named Whisenhunt to the league’s Competition Committee, which makes recommendations on the game’s rules and procedures. Whisenhunt joins two other coaches, the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis and the Rams’ Jeff Fisher, on the nine-member committee.

“You never know when you get a call from the commissioner what to expect,” Whisenhunt said. “Obviously, I was very excited.

“One of the great things about the NFL and the ownership of the NFL is they’re always looking to get better and keep our game as interesting to the fans as possible. History shows they’ve done a great job of that.”

— Quarterback Kevin Kolb missed three complete games and most of a fourth because of a concussion. He said symptoms from the injury, suffered Dec. 11 against the 49ers, lingered for about a month after the season. That’s a total of at least seven weeks. But Kolb said he is not worried about suffering another concussion.

“If it happens, it happens. I’ll deal with it,” he said.

— Kolb also isn’t worrying about reports that the team will be interested in Peyton Manning should the Colts release him. The Cardinals are due to pay Kolb a $7 million roster bonus by March 17.

“Every indication on my end shows me that I’ll be there,” Kolb said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I know how the NFL works. Anything is possible. I just try to keep my mind clear and do what I can on my end. I plan on having a great year and being a Cardinal for a long time.” — QB Kevin Kolb on rumors of the Cardinals’ interest in Peyton Manning.

MEDICAL WATCH

— SS Adrian Wilson played all of last season with a torn right biceps tendon. No surgery was required, and Wilson says he is now healthy.

— LG Daryn Colledge underwent surgery on an elbow this offseason. Colledge said it was not a major procedure but was one that he had been putting off for a few years. He is expected to be healthy for the start of camp.