Pass rush tops Cardinals’ defensive agenda

The accolades are pouring in for the Cardinals defense. It has youth. It has speed. It has stars. It has a hot new coordinator at the helm, and it has a king-sized chip on its shoulder, fueled by the every-day demeanor of its leaders, Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson.

While it may be premature to anoint a unit on the strength of a half a season’s worth of work, there are reasons to be optimistic as the Cards head to training camp in Flagstaff next week.

Calais Campbell and Dockett give the unit a formidable pair of ends. Nose tackle Dan Williams has shown signs of becoming the space-eating behemoth required for this 3-4 defense. There is depth along the line in Nick Eason, Vonnie Holliday and David Carter. There is veteran savvy and play-making ability at the safety position in Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. There is a star-in-the-making cover-corner in Patrick Peterson and a stud inside linebacker in Daryl Washington.

So what’s missing? A consistent pass rush from the edge.

While coach Ken Whisenhunt has noted the Cards finished seventh in the NFL last season with 42 sacks spread throughout the unit, defensive coordinator Ray Horton has acknowledged he’d like to see more consistent pressure from his outside linebackers.

Second-year linebacker Sam Acho has apparently won one slot after Joey Porter was not re-signed. Acho, who replaced Porter last season as a rookie, finished second on the team with seven sacks. The other slot is still up for grabs after Arizona re-signed veteran Clark Haggans, who is coming off a solid season at age 35.

The Cards are fine with Haggans, a smart player with sound technique and positioning. But the guy they’d like to beat him out this year is O’Brien Schofield, their fourth-round pick from 2010 who missed half that season rehabbing a severe knee injury, then progressed slowly last season, finishing with 33 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

That is one of three key position battles on the unit. Here’s a look at each:

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

The matchup: Clark Haggans vs. O’Brien Schofield

Haggans’ advantages: He knows the system better than most, having once been a Steeler. He commands respect and admiration in the locker room. He plays through injuries, and he has the trust of his coaches and teammates.

Schofield’s advantages: The raw pass-rushing ability and speed he showed at Wisconsin that enticed the Cardinals to draft him despite a horrific knee injury. Schofield still needs to improve his reads and his decision-making, but he has progressed thanks to a strong work ethic.

The skinny: Horton could decide to split reps at this position until Schofield shows he can make the right decisions on a consistent basis. Haggans played very well last season, so the Cards won’t be deficient here; they just won’t be elite.

The edge: Dead heat

INSIDE LINEBACKER

The matchup: Paris Lenon vs. Stewart Bradley

Lenon’s advantages: Intelligence, sound positioning and technique, a low-key, veteran’s approach and coachability. Reporters have been predicting Lenon’s demise for the past two seasons, but he’s played too well to let that happen. He was second on the team last season in tackles with 93.

Bradley’s advantages: We’re going to assume Bradley can add speed and range to this position, since the Cards signed him to a five-year, $30 million free-agent deal (he took a 50 percent pay cut for this season), but he hasn’t played on a consistent enough basis to show off all his wares.

The skinny: Until Bradley shows he has mastered the mental side of the defense — and an ability to call the plays — this is Lenon’s job. He’s earned it with his play and his mind.

The edge: Lenon

CORNERBACK
 
The matchup: William Gay vs. Greg Toler vs. A.J. Jefferson vs. Jamell Fleming

Gay’s advantages: The former Steeler knows Horton’s system well, which could give him a leg up on his very young competition.

Toler’s advantages: He’s a physical corner who knows the defensive personnel and had made great strides before missing last season with a torn ACL.

Jefferson’s advantages:
He has good size (6-1) and played so well in camp last season that coach Ken Whisenhunt gave him the starting job, but he lost confidence after some rough games and was eventually replaced.

Fleming’s advantages: Horton likes his intelligence, and Fleming isn’t lacking for confidence.

The skinny: Jefferson and Fleming are likely too inexperienced to seriously challenge for this spot. Gay has the experience but is comfortable in a reserve role. If Toler is physically ready after last season’s injury, he should win this job.

The edge: Toler