The Arizona Cardinals defense in 2014 will look a little different than in 2013, mainly in personnel changes. Because of free agency and because of suspension, the Cardinals have to replace three players on defense that almost never left the field last season.
Safety Yeremiah Bell was on the field for all but 14 defensive snaps.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby was on the field for all but five snaps, and he did not come off the field after Week 7.
Linebacker Daryl Washington, after returning from his four game suspension, was on the field for all but eight defensive snaps. He did not leave the field after Week 11.
Those are three key players to replace. In terms of personnel, they have safety taken care of. They have Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon expected to battle for Bell's starting job. Rashad Johnson will be in the mix as well.
At linebacker, the starter in Dansby's spot is expected to be Kevin Minter. The other spot vacated by Washington is unknown. Veterans Larry Foote, Lorenzo Alexander, Ernie Sims and Keena Clayton are in the mix, as well as youngsters Kenny Demens, Glenn Carson and Jonathan Brown.
Now...let's look at some formations.
The base defense will be a 3-4, with the starting defensive line of Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Calais Campbell. At outside linebacker, John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy are expected to start. At inside linebacker, let's project Larry Foote and Minter. The corners are set with Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie, while the safeties will be Tyrann Mathieu at free safety (when healthy) and then probably Bucannon at strong safety.
The question at linebacker is whether they can use the same personnel in sub packages.
Bruce Arians believes that Larry Foote is a two-down linebacker for sure. Arians also said that, for passing downs, they might consider something different.
"Whether or not we have a linebacker in the game, we have a lot of safeties that can play linebacker and we played a lot of ‘dollar' last year," explained Arians.
To be clear, the Cardinals did not use this formation "a lot of 'dollar'" in 2013. And in terms of using a safety in the box as a linebacker, they only did it in one -- against the Detroit Lions. They played a lot of dime (six defensive backs), where Tyrann Mathieu was at nickel corner, Bell moved down like a linebacker, and then Tony Jefferson came into the game to pair with Rashad Johnson at safety.
It was the only game in which they played with a safety in at linebacker.
But beyond whether it is something the Cardinals did a lot in 2013, it is a possibility in 2014.
They did not have to get too creative with their personnel because they had players they didn't want leaving the field. This year, it will likely involve more subbing, especially with the changes at linebacker.
Let's assume that Foote is a two-down player. We can guess he will be subbed out in nickel/dime packages. How would that work?
In 2013, their most common nickel package was a 2-4-5. Dockett and Campbell were the down linemen, Dansby and Washington were in the middle and they would go with a pair of outside linebackers -- Abraham, Shaughnessy or Marcus Benard.
When they went with six defensive backs, then one of the outside linebackers would come out. They would go 2-3-6, but the linebackers would be two inside and one outside.
If Arians is serious about bringing a safety in at linebacker, Bucannon comes to mind. Tony Jefferson does as well. Mathieu, when healthy, will always be the slot corner, where he was most effective. Rashad Johnson is probably not that player.
Based on Arians comments, it seems like the team might not go with a real nickel package. They might go to six defensive backs.
What would that look like?
It would probably be a 2-3-6 set, but it would look a little different. Dockett and Calais would be the down linemen, but instead of two inside and one outside backer, they would go the other way around -- two outside and one inside backer. I do not think they would take out both inside backers, playing with seven defensive backs. The inside backer would be Minter or whoever is their best coverage guy -- perhaps Lorenzo Alexander or Ernie Sims. Then they have John Abraham and another outside backer off the edge -- is that Alex Okafor, Sam Acho, Marcus Benard or even Kareem Martin?
Then, it could be either Bucannon or Jefferson in the box near the line of scrimmage, with the other of the two plus Johnson back as traditional safeties.
In many ways, this type of formation is really exciting. Sure, the playmaking of Dansby and Washington are gone, but you put two potentially solid pass rushers and a hard hitting safety in the box.
Rookie Kareem Martin also gives reason for excitement. If he is in the game in this formation, it could turn into a 3-2-6. He could combine with Calais Campbell as defensive ends and push Dockett inside as a nose tackle. Abraham still is in the game rushing off the edge. Martin will be used both at defensive end and at outside linebacker, so it gives some flexibility in that sense.
But I have to admit, the thought of Abraham on one side withe Martin on the other with Dockett and Campbell inside, that has the potential to be a very disruptive group against the pass, plus with some coverage help with three corners and three safeties in the game.
In mini-camp and in training camp, it will be something to watch for to see if these formations show up at all.