Coordinator Horton has Cardinals' defense rolling
Ray Horton sits far above the field in the coaches' booth and watches his defense unfold.
In his second season as the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator, Horton has his team playing at a level that has gained notice around the NFL as one of the league's best.
Aggressive and exceedingly fast in a 3-4 scheme, the defense is a main reason the Cardinals are off to their first 3-0 start in 38 years.
You won't see the coach with the perfectly braided hair on the sidelines. He prefers a perch high above the action, where he can see the play from afar and judge what needs to be done.
And so far, the Cardinals have done real well.
Through three games, they have allowed two touchdowns, fewest in the NFL. Their 40 points allowed are second-fewest in the league behind Seattle's 39.
Yet Horton, who played defensive back in the league for 10 seasons, gives his team a grade of ''incomplete.''
''We've left a lot of things on the table,'' he said after Friday's final practice before Arizona is host to Miami on Sunday. ''We're striving to be as good as we can be, and we're not there yet.''
Defense had been a trouble spot throughout Ken Whisenhunt's time as Cardinals coach. When Horton was hired after seven seasons on the staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was Whisenhunt's third defensive coordinator in five years.
With no offseason because of the lockout a year ago, the players struggled to get a grasp of the system Horton brought with him from Pittsburgh. Then it seemed to click, and Arizona has since won 10 of 12, largely because of its ever-stronger defense.
Let versatile lineman Nick Eason, who probably will start at tackle for the injured Darnell Dockett against the Dolphins, explain how the defense works.
''In this defensive scheme - I played in it for a number of years in Pittsburgh - I tell guys `Just be where you're supposed to be and do what you're supposed to do,''' Eason said. ''If you're supposed to be in the `B' gap, that's where you need to be. If you're supposed to be in the `A' gap, that's where you need to be. We take confidence in each other.''
Eason said he loves playing for Horton.
''He's a really smart coach. He's a very intelligent person as well,'' he said. ''He doesn't over-analyze during the game. He knows how to make adjustments during the middle of the game. You know he sits in the booth. He's a huge asset as a defensive coordinator. He does things that make a lot of sense.''
The Cardinals have accumulated considerable defensive talent, a mix of young and old. There are veterans in Dockett, safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes and inside linebacker Paris Lenon, and there are younger players such as defensive end Calais Campbell, inside linebacker Daryl Washington, cornerback Patrick Peterson and outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield.
Arizona has 12 sacks in three games - by seven players. In an example of the team's dedication to defense, the team signed Campbell and Washington to big contract extensions recently.
But it's up to Horton to make the most of his players' ability.
''I give him a whole lot credit for the way we've come together, `' Campbell said. ''I think his greatest asset as a coach is understanding the talent he's working with as players and knowing how to utilize it and knowing how to motivate his players. He has a great defense and he understands the game at a high level. The game comes easy to him mentally and that carries over.
''He taught us how to approach the game differently in our mind. He's a big reason why we're winning.''
Before every series, Campbell said, Eason gets up and says ''Everybody do their job, be where they're supposed to be and there's no way we can lose.''
It's exactly what Horton would want to hear.
But he's far from satisfied. Horton wants better communication and more takeaways, two things he says go hand in hand. He also wants to improve against the run, something necessary against the Dolphins, who may or may not have the services of Reggie Bush.
''Miami is the No. 4 rushing offense. They're averaging 175 yards and 5 yards a carry, so it's one of those `What's going to give?''' Horton said. ''Either we're going to get better or they're going to continue to get better on their side of the ball. There's some factors involved in that, too, the score of the game and what I'm calling.''
Asked if the two touchdowns allowed is the defense's most important stat.
''No, 4-0 is the most important stat,'' Horton said.
But Arizona isn't 4-0 yet.
''Oh,'' he said. ''Ask me on Sunday night then.''