One of the hardest things to do during the preseason is gauge improvements along an already elite (?) defense. But that is what is expected from the Arizona Cardinals this year after a season in which they leaned heavily on their defense to keep them afloat the first part of the season while the offense figured things out.
The cast of characters has changed so much from the end of last season that expecting improvements may be a little over the top, and instead Cardinals fans should expect many of the same results as last year if things go well.
While the Cardinals wait for the return of outside linebacker John Abraham from his sabbatical, they will have six new starters on defense based on the depth chart from the end of 2013. When Abraham is back that will move to five until Tyrann Mathieu is back and healthy, then it moves to four.
With outside linebacker Alex Okafor, inside linebackers Kevin Minter and Larry Foote, as well as safeties Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson all starting (I know I didn't mention cornerback Antonio Cromartie), we'll get a small idea of what we can expect from the Cardinals base defense going into the season.
The problem becomes how often will the Cardinals play a base defense in 2014? Rarely I will guess based on last season, but let's get to what to watch for in the preseason opener.
Lord knows the Cardinals cannot afford another starter on defense going down. I don't even want to talk about it, let's just move on.
How are the safeties communicating?
While Jefferson, Johnson and rookie Deone Bucannon will get the first crack at playing on Saturday, don't pay too much attention to how much they play. Instead, pay attention to where they are playing.
Bucannon has spent a lot of time as a "Spur," at least that's what I am calling it as it is similar to what ASU has done with their linebacker/safety hybrids. In the preseason I would like to see him play a more traditional safety role just to get him used to the spot, used to making the secondary calls and to figure out the speed of the game more and more.
As for Johnson and Jefferson, they are not the athletes that Mathieu and Bucannon are, but they offer a savvy that should make fans comfortable in what they can do for the time being.
Who's getting to the quarterback?
Sam Acho? Alex Okafor? Derrell Johnson? Trevardo Williams?
We know how limited Matt Shaughnessy is a as a pass-rusher, but he's an elite run defender. That leaves the previously mentioned foursome, plus Marcus Bernard, Glenn Carson and Adrian Tracy as possible pass rushers who can make an impact going forward.
If Abraham is out for any extended time, or as Bob McManaman alluded to, forever, then they need to replace those 11.5 sacks in some way. It doesn't have to come from one player, but it needs to be found at the linebacker position because we already know how dominant the defensive line can be.
Start creating pressures early and often and eventually sacks will come, but the job is open right now, and auditions start for real on Saturday.
Let the kids have some fun
Rookie defensive end Kareem Martin, the aforementioned Johnson, Williams and Co. need to be cut loose to see what their instincts show.
We know the Cardinals have a lot of talent on defense, but they may be missing playmakers on the second level, and these kids show a young, hungry mentality -- let them eat and see what comes of it.
What are you looking for from the defense on Saturday?