Solving the Adrian Wilson riddle

Even Adrian Wilson was "shocked" to learn his 2010 season produced a Pro Bowl berth -- as a starter, no less.

This was a down season for the Arizona Cardinals and for Wilson in particular. The hard-hitting strong safety appeared miscast in coverage, sometimes to an alarming degree.

The Cardinals' next defensive coordinator must maximize Wilson's strengths while better masking his weaknesses. Acquiring younger, more active players at outside linebacker would surely help. Improved play at cornerback, particularly from the talented Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, would also take pressure off the safeties.

Wilson remains a dominant physical presence near the line of scrimmage. I cannot think of a more violent defensive back in the NFL right now, with the possible exception of Troy Polamalu. Some of the plays Wilson makes -- and I'll cover a couple here -- rival what Pittsburgh's James Harrison and San Francisco's Patrick Willis achieve as linebackers.

Wilson provided fresh imagery during an otherwise forgettable Cardinals performance against the 49ers in Week 17. The playoffs and coaching turnover had prevented me from watching that game as closely as usual until this week. I watched it Tuesday night and saw a veteran player taking out his frustrations.

Two plays stood out:

  • Wilson brought down 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree high and from behind with such force that I recalled the time Warren Sapp destroyed Jerry Rice's knee in 1997. Crabtree was fortunate Wilson did not trap his legs underneath him during the play. This looked like an adult lion tackling a baby antelope.

  • Wilson saved his most violent hit of the game for 49ers running back Brian Westbrook. Alex Smith threw for Westbrook on second-and-10 in the second quarter. Wilson extended his left arm across Westbrook's neck and slammed him into the ground on his upper back. Westbrook was shaken.

Good quarterbacks will find ways to exploit safeties lacking in coverage skills. That happened at Wilson's expense too frequently in 2010.

But as I watched this Cardinals-49ers game, I kept thinking there must be a prominent role within a successful defense for a player with Wilson's abilities. It's up to the Cardinals to find one, and it's Wilson's job to become a more well-rounded player.