Cardinals take flight behind defense, running game
The Arizona Cardinals are all about destroying stereotypes these days. They ended decades of futility by making a surprise run to the Super Bowl last season on the ageless arm of Kurt Warner and fleet talented receivers led by All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald. Now they are erasing their image as a one-trick pony - a team that's all pass, no run with an inconsistent defense prone to giving up big plays at the worst possible time. In the last two games, both on the road, Arizona's defense has been dominant - in a 27-3 victory in Seattle and in Sunday night's 24-17 stunner over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. As for the running game, rookie Beanie Wells is emerging as a dynamic threat - as long as he holds onto the ball. If the Cardinals get moving on the ground, life would be so much easier for Warner, who at 38 still can carve up a defense if given time. The defense is attacking with speed and aggressiveness under new coordinator Bill Davis. Despite the team's success in the playoffs last season, coach Ken Whisenhunt was displeased with the up-and-down nature of the defense, especially after Pittsburgh's winning drive in the waning seconds of the Super Bowl. So he fired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and promoted Davis, the linebackers coach. Davis made a few adjustments, emphasized details and technique and, in the last two games, assaulted the opposing quarterbacks with an array of bewildering blitzes. "I know we're playing for each other out there," said safety Antrel Rolle, whose interception clinched the victory over the Giants. "Nothing makes me happier than to see (Adrian) Wilson go out and get an interception, and Dominique (Rodgers-Cromartie) get an interception." Wilson and Rodgers-Cromartie each had interceptions against the Giants' Eli Manning. Wilson also recovered a fumble. The week before, Arizona held Seattle to 0 for 11 on third downs, stifling the Seahawks in one of the NFL's noisiest stadiums. The Cardinals are hitting their stride after a frustrating start that began with a sloppy 20-16 home loss to San Francisco. Arizona won comfortably at Jacksonville, but came home to get embarrassed by Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts 31-10 in a Sunday night game. The bye week and some soul-searching followed. Arizona beat Houston 28-21 after that, but had to hang on at the end. The Cardinals led 21-0 at halftime before Matt Schaub rallied the Texans to tie the game. Arizona's defense regrouped to make the game's deciding plays. Rodgers-Cromartie returned an interception 49 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, then the Cardinals stopped Houston three times at the Arizona 1-yard line at the finish. The Cardinals lead the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 67.5 yards per game and they have climbed out of the league's cellar in pass defense with their performance in the last two games. They are tied for second in the NFC with 16 sacks. It's a defense with only two new players, and both have played big roles. Veteran cornerback Bryant McFadden left Pittsburgh and signed as a free agent with the Cardinals. Arizona lost defensive end Antonio Smith to free agency, but 6-foot-8 second-year pro Calais Campbell has made an immediate impact. With defensive tackle Darnell Dockett consistently drawing double teams, Campbell has become a disruptive force. He is tied for the team lead in sacks with three, and with his long arms deflected the pass that led to an interception by Wilson against New York. He also has blocked two field goals. In the secondary, Rodgers-Cromartie had a rough start to the season. Davis said it was a learning experience for the gifted cornerback, in his second pro season. Rodgers-Cromartie found out that he can't get by on athleticism alone. He is sidelined with a sprained ankle and his status for Sunday's home game against Carolina is uncertain. Arizona also has developed something else it never had before - depth. When Rodgers-Cromartie and Wilson were sidelined late against New York, backups made some of the game's biggest plays. "We have a good thing going with our defense as far as accountability and belief in each other," Whisenhunt said. "They are playing very fast and very physical and making plays." Now about that running game. Arizona was dead last in the NFL in rushing last season, and is in the same place this season. But Wells brings a glimmer of hope. Tim Hightower will continue to start, but expect the rookie from Ohio State to get more and more carries. "When we feel like Beanie is ready that's when he will do that," Whisenhunt said, noting that the Cardinals eased Rodgers-Cromartie and Campbell into their roles. "I think we have had great success doing that with our players. That will continue. We are not just going to put somebody in there. He is going to have to earn that." Arizona got its running game going just enough to make its passing game even more effective in last season's playoffs. Edgerrin James was the starter then, but he was released after the season and Hightower inherited the job. The back of the future, though, is Wells, who has shown both power and quickness when he gets a chance to carry the ball. Wells gained 67 yards in 14 carries against New York, including a 13-yard run for his first NFL touchdown. After their rocky start, the Cardinals have won three in a row to move into first place in the NFC West. Their nationally televised victory over the Giants might have proved one thing to those watching: Under Whisenhunt, Arizona is no passing fancy.