The Arizona Cardinals defense has been in a state of flux since Ken Whisenhunt took over as the head coach two seasons ago. The transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 look is never an easy move and it normally takes a couple of years. In 2008 the Cardinals employed a hybrid look that produced varying levels of success. In some areas the defense excelled (5th in takeaways) but in most categories the defense was average at best (in the bottom half of the NFL in passing and rushing yards allowed as well as bottom five in points per game). The defensive struggles led to the Cardinals not bringing back Clancy Pendergast, some turnover on that side of the ball and a renewed sense of urgency in implementing more concepts of the traditional 3-4. New defensive coordinator, Bill Davis has already spelled out some of the changes in store for 2009 and the most noticeable will be at outside linebacker.
In Clancy's hybrid defense the outside linbackers, depending on which side they were on, had completely different roles in which one was basically a pass rushing defensive end (LaBoy and Berry) and the other side was primarily for coverage (Okeafor). That alignment not only did not utilize Okeafor's strengths but it also made it easier for opposing offenses to game plan for their defense. Davis' changes have led to Clark Haggans, a guy with plenty of experieince in a 3-4, being named the starter opposite of Okeafor and the Cardinals defense looks poised to finally complete the transition, but what can we expect in 2009?
New Starters: For a team that played in the Super Bowl just three months ago, the Cardinals defense has experienced quite a bit of turnover. If we look back to the starting eleven from week one in 2008, there should be five new starters when the Cardinals take the field against the Niners on September 13th. Turnover in case though might not be a bad thing. Both starting corners from 2008 are gone but the combo of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Bryant McFadden should be a drastic upgrade from Roderick Hood and Eric Green. A healthy and motivated Gabe Watson should be better than Bryan Robinson who played well at nose tackle last year but was simply too small to be a force in the middle of the trenches. Travis LaBoy was the week one starter and looked very good at the beginning of the season but injuries derailed his season and after failing a physical he was released shortly after the draft. Clark Haggans takes his spot and, if healthy, should provide a well rounded presence at outside linebacker. The biggest loss of this off season has been Antonio Smith signing with the Texans but young and promising Calais Campbell takes his spot.
New and Improved Rolle: After spending all of last off season talking about how great Antrel Rolle would be at free safety, most of us were very disappointed with his play early last season. By season's end though Rolle was playing well and garnered some interest as the most improved player of the year. After being hobbled by an ankle injury during most of training camp and preseason last year Rolle got off to a slow start. He was taking bad angles, missing tackles and looking like anything but the answer at free safety. As the season wore on though and Rolle got more and more comfortable at his new position, we started to see the play making, dynamic Rolle that we'd all hoped for last summer. With a full off season and hopefully a healthy training camp this year, we can again expect big things from Rolle. His presence as the 'centerfielder' of the defense allows Adrian Wilson to roam free and create havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Veteran Outside Linebackers Must Perform: One key aspect of any respectable 3-4 defense is a pair of outside linebackers who carry the defense. They are the ones responsible for putting pressure on the quarterback and creating havoc in the backfield. In Pittsburgh and Dallas their starting OLB's combined for 28 sacks and in Miami they combined for 23 but last year the quartet of outside linebackers in Arizona combined for just 14 sacks. The pressure will be on Clark Haggans and Chike Okeafor to produce a pass rush or the Cardinals secondary will be in trouble. Okeafor has had as many as 8.5 sacks (2006) while Haggans career high was nine (2005), but the Cardinals are expecting that kind of production this season. With rookie Cody Brown and the unproven Victor Hobson running with the second team in this weekend's mini camp, the defense will likely only go as far as Haggans and Okeafor can take it.
With a dynamic offense that shouldn't have problems scoring points, it will be very interesting to see how well the Cardinals defense can perform in 2009. With a solid mix of veteran leadership and play making youth, they've got the potential to be very good, but there are still question marks. How do you see this defense playing in 2009? What's the biggest concern and biggest strength?