Under Horton, defense becomes Cardinals' strength
For the first time in a long, long time, the strength of the Arizona Cardinals could be its defense.
Coordinator Ray Horton has molded a defensive unit that was largely responsible for Arizona winning seven of its last nine games last season after a disastrous 1-6 start.
Everyone on that side of the ball is back, along with a handful of additions that bolster the depth of a squad that mixes youngsters with grizzled veterans, including strong safety Adrian Wilson, tackle Darnell Dockett and inside linebacker Paris Lenin.
It's a confident bunch going through minicamp workouts in the stifling desert heat. The goal, Horton said, is to be one of the top 10 defenses in the NFL, something that has happened only twice since the franchise moved to Arizona.
''A top 10 defense is usually in the playoffs,'' Horton said after the team worked out on Wednesday.
Horton is easy to spot in practice, with his trademark dreadlocks, usually while stationing himself between the inside linebackers and the secondary. He is a stickler for details and said he has watched every play from last season from all of this year's opponents.
There is no doubt that his coaching reputation is growing after he was able to install his system on the fly last season after the player lockout eliminated all workouts before the belated start of training camp. Horton played defensive back in the NFL for 10 years, six with Cincinnati and four with Dallas. In his final game, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
Horton coached at Washington, Cincinnati and Detroit before joining the Pittsburgh Steelers' staff in 2004. When Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach, Horton was promoted to defensive backs coach in 2007. At Pittsburgh, he helped the Steelers reach the Super Bowl three times.
When he was hired at Arizona, Horton became the third defensive coordinator in coach Ken Whisenhunt's five seasons with the team, and when the players finally were able to practice, he set about installing the Steelers' system, a rough introduction under fire. He said that, through all the struggles as players tried to figure out what they were supposed to do, he never lost faith that the system would work.
''It's tested, it's proven. It's like taxes and death, you know it's going to work. The frustrating part was getting them to understand it,'' he said. ''But then again this time last year we'd already been sent on vacation. They said `Coaches go home. There's nothing for you to do.' We didn't see them until Aug. 1 or Aug. 3, then 45 guys couldn't practice for three days for some NFL rule. It was very frustrating.''
Whisenhunt has noticed the performance of the defensive players in the organized team workouts and this week's minicamp. .
''I see them playing with a lot of confidence,'' he said. ''It really is going to be a test when we get into the pads and we get into preseason games because it's about playing technique, the ability to make tackles. It's hard to see that right now. But there's no question in my mind that they're confident in what they're doing. They understand the defense and they seemed to be meshing very well together, which is an important part of being a very good defense.''
The Cardinals made a significant move when they signed 6-foot-8 defensive end Calais Campbell to a five-year, $55 million extension.
Campbell, Dockett and nose tackle Dan Williams make up the front of the 3-4 scheme. The outside linebackers are talented youngsters Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield, and the Cardinals signed free agent Quentin Groves and re-signed Clark Haggans to add some veteran experience at the position. Daryl Washington, arguably the most athletic and among the best players on the unit, holds down one inside linebacker spot, with Lenin - whose journeyman career experienced a rebirth last season - playing the other.
Wilson and Kerry Rhodes are the starting safeties, with Rashad Johnson, who got plenty of experience filling in for the injured Rhodes last season, adding depth.
Patrick Peterson made giant strides as the shutdown cornerback in his rookie season. The other cornerback spot was bolstered with the signing of free agent William Gay. Greg Toler, coming back from a torn ACL in his left knee that wiped out his season a year ago, adds depth, as do former starter A.J. Jefferson and third-round draft pick Jamell Fleming, whose quickness and athletic ability have made a big impression in the workouts, often as the third cornerback in the team's ''nickel'' set.
''It seems like every day he's made a play on a ball out here, knocking it down or even getting an interception,'' Whisenhunt said.
Horton said he will be ''more demanding'' this season, now that he finally has been able to install the entire defense.
He deflects suggestions that the defense will be the team's biggest strength. He talks about the talent on offense and Peterson's obvious ability as one of the best punt returners in the league.
But, Horton said, ''if that's the perception, that's something probably the guys on defense wear with a badge of honor.''