Cardinals' D opening eyes but staying humble
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Amid the growing accolades for the Cardinals’ suffocating defense, Darnell Dockett is taking a cautious and slightly amused approach.
"We’re the same defense we were at the end of last year," the defensive tackle said, shaking his head. "But we still got 13 games left, so we ain’t getting all excited like y’all. We got a long ways to go."
If you’ve been paying attention, the Cardinals' defensive prowess is nothing new. The unit was one of the league’s best over the second half of the 2011 season in multiple statistical categories. But for the late-arriving crowd -- most of it national, some of it local -- Arizona’s performance through three weeks has been a revelation.
Maybe that’s because the Cardinals did it against two big-market, East Coast teams that live life under a media microscope. For two successive weeks, the Cardinals have wandered into that Petri dish, making the narrowly focused national media aware of their presence.
First came a 20-18 win over Tom Brady and the hardware-laden Patriots, whose last loss in a home opener came 12 days after the World Trade Center towers fell.
On Sunday, the Eagles came to University of Phoenix Stadium averaging 471 yards per game and 331.5 passing yards -- both tops in the NFL. The Cards held the Eagles to 308 total yards (182 passing), sacked quarterback Michael Vick five times and kept Philadelphia out of the end zone in a 27-6 whipping.
Not bad for a club that was playing without strong safety and defensive captain Adrian Wilson (groin/ankle), then lost Dockett to a hamstring strain with more than 10 minutes to go in the game.
"We’ve got a great mix of young guys that are very humble and want to be great and then some older, veteran guys who still have a lot to prove and still have a lot of football left," Wilson said. "I’m in my 12th year, but I feel like I’m in my eighth year because I’m still hungry and we’re still hungry."
Sunday's game marked the 10th time in the past 12 games the Cards allowed 20 points or fewer (all wins). Vick’s poor completion numbers (17 for 37, or 46 percent) were also indicative of what the coverage and pass rush have been doing to offenses for all of the first three weeks. Quarterbacks are completing just 53.8 percent of their passes and have been sacked 12 times.
But the numbers don’t stop there. The Cardinals rank 10th in the NFL in total defense, allowing 316.3 yards per game. Yet, in spite of the fact they’ve played two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, they rank first in points allowed per game -- the stat coaches care about most -- at 13.3.
The Cardinals also rank eighth in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (33); third in opponents’ red-zone TD percentage (22.2); second in sacks (12) and tied for first in forced fumbles (four) and recovered fumbles (four) while also picking off two passes.
"We had an offseason this year, and guys were able to get in their playbooks again," said defensive tackle Nick Eason, who knows what great defenses look like since he came from Pittsburgh. "(Defensive coordinator) Ray Horton is probably one of the most intelligent coaches I’ve ever been around. When you can get 11 guys on the same page ... being where they’re supposed to be and doing their job, you can be successful."
The mantra in the Cardinals' locker room Sunday night, and again Monday morning, was: Stay humble and don’t get ahead of yourselves. At the same time, it was apparent in Sunday’s game that this group’s confidence is swelling, that it has developed a swagger that you often saw with the great defensive units of the past such as those of the Bears, the Ravens or the Steelers.
"We don’t have to express it to you guys, the swagger we have," Wilson said. "We’re a humble bunch of young men. We don’t have one guy who’s going to come out and say 'We’re the best' or stick his chest out.
"But if we are where we’re supposed to be and doing what we’re supposed to do and playing our technique, we have a chance to win every play. Ultimately, we want to play great team defense, attacking team defense that stays within the scheme."
A couple seasons ago in training camp, long snapper Mike Leach outlined a scenario in which he could win the Super Bowl MVP trophy by returning a blocked kick for a touchdown.
Sunday’s game didn’t afford him the same stage, but Leach had his opportunity for end-zone glory when Anthony Sherman stripped Eagles punt returner Damaris Johnson of the ball late in the first quarter and Leach recovered at the Philadelphia 38-yard line.
"I think getting knocked on my face earlier in the play helped me time the arrival better," said Leach, who also had a fumble recovery in a playoff game against New England in 2005.
Leach’s disciplined, initial thought was to drop on the ball and secure it.
"I figured the dog pile was coming," he said. "But after a second, I was like, 'I don’t think I’ve heard a whistle,' so that’s when I tried to get up, but as soon as I started running, that’s when they blew it dead. I should have gotten up a little quicker, but I wasn’t about to give that ball up."
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said Wilson (groin/ankle) and tight end Todd Heap (PCL sprain) were close to playing Sunday but were held out as a precaution. Whisenhunt expected to have more news on running back Beanie Wells (turf toe) and Dockett (hamstring) later in the day after tests were performed.
Whisenhunt also hopes to have quarterback John Skelton (low-ankle sprain) back at practice this week. When asked if Kevin Kolb’s performance over the past three weeks has solidified his hold on the QB spot, Whisenhunt reiterated that he won’t make any definitive judgments until Skelton returns.
The Cards signed former ASU receiver Kerry Taylor to their practice squad Monday to replace suspended wideout Gerell Robinson, who is out four games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
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