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Monday, August 3, 2009
Camp Confidential: Cardinals address defense

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
  Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
  The Cardinals hope Beanie Wells can help give the team a consistent running game.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Fans watching Arizona Cardinals training camp chanted Larry Fitzgerald's name as the decorated receiver approached to sign autographs.

They chanted with enough fervor to drown out Bill Davis' voice as the Cardinals' new defensive coordinator submitted to an interview nearby.

The symbolism was appropriate.

Camp Confidential: NFC West
Cardinals: Mon., Aug. 3
49ers: Wed., Aug. 5
Seahawks: Mon., Aug. 10
Rams: Thurs., Aug.13

Already a star, Fitzgerald became superstar material by setting NFL postseason records for receptions (30), receiving yards (546) and touchdowns (seven) last season.

As for that Cardinals defense? Coordinator Clancy Pendergast lost his job after coaching in the Super Bowl.

Arizona played well enough on defense at key moments for the Cardinals to make their Super Bowl run, but not well enough to hold a last-minute lead with a championship on the line. Arizona's regular-season opponents amassed 426 points, one fewer than the Cardinals' prolific offense scored, and an astounding 36 touchdown passes, nine more than any other NFL team allowed.

Davis, promoted from linebackers coach, points to scoring defense as the "only thing we talk about." He expects better play against the deep ball, a stronger pass rush and renewed commitment to technique, alignment and assignments.

"You can focus on a lot of things, but when you have our offense, which we have so much respect for and it's fun to watch, we've got to take care of our end," Davis said. "We are really emphasizing technique, alignment, eyes, assignments. It sounds like it goes back to high school, but at the end of the day, that is what makes teams great because they all have great talent."

Key questions

 
  Jeff Gross/Getty Images
  Running back Tim Hightower rushed for 399 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

1. Is Beanie Wells the answer at running back?

The Cardinals aren't much closer to knowing than when they drafted him with the 31st overall selection.

Ohio State's late graduation kept Wells from practicing with the Cardinals beyond the post-draft camp in early May. Wells' ankle injury Saturday during his first training camp practice will sideline him further. The more time Wells misses, the more likely Tim Hightower will emerge as the Week 1 starter.

"The only personal goal I've set for myself is to come in and be that guy, be the guy that -- I know we're a passing team -- that defenses will have to actually focus on the running game for the Arizona Cardinals," Wells said.

The Cardinals released Edgerrin James this offseason in part because they knew what they would get from him, and it wasn't enough to justify a $5 million salary. Though durable and reliable, James wasn't going to break long runs or scare defenses with the big play.

Wells is far more suited to provide those things if he can stay on the field.

"We want to be a little bit more balanced," Fitzgerald said. "If we can get a good running game going, the play-action is going to be big. That is going to leave single coverage for us outside and that is going to make it easy -- not easy, but easier -- for us to make plays when we are in one-on-one coverage."

2. Where will the Cardinals get their pass rush?

 Dockett
 Campbell

Twenty-three NFL teams had at least one pass-rusher with more than five sacks last season. The Cardinals were not among them. They lack an obvious candidate to break through this season.

Everyone from general manager Rod Graves to coach Ken Whisenhunt to Davis points to rookie second-round choice Cody Brown and 2008 second-rounder Calais Campbell as potential surprise contributors.

The team's most disruptive pass-rusher, Darnell Dockett, wondered earlier this
offseason how he would fit as Davis leaned more heavily on 3-4 alignments. Dockett, who projects as the prototypical 4-3 interior pass-rusher, apparently has nothing to worry about. Davis said he re-watched every snap Dockett played over the past two seasons while designing his defense to suit the 290-pound Pro Bowler's talents. Expect Dockett to line up in new places.

"Without giving too much away," Davis said, "the bottom line is, we're excited about having Darnell in this package and we're very aware of his talents in this package."

3. How will the Cardinals handle turnover on the coaching staff?

Former offensive coordinator Todd Haley thrived on challenging even the Cardinals' best players. His sideline shouting match with Anquan Boldin in the playoffs proved as much. The intensity Haley brought to the position isn't the sort of thing a staff naturally replicates.

Players responded to Haley, and now he is gone.

Whisenhunt is excited to take back play-calling duties on offense. The team shouldn't lose much, if anything, on that front. Whisenhunt might be just as good or better.

Fitzgerald's continued emergence as a more proactive leader could help fill some of the void now that Haley is the head coach in Kansas City. Fitzgerald's mentoring of Wells alone qualifies as extraordinary. Wells lived with Fitzgerald for stretches this offseason and accompanied him to Minnesota for workouts with Cris Carter.

"I think that is special with Larry," Whisenhunt said. "I've been on some good football teams and the common thread with those teams is there was a chemistry, there was a closeness with the players. A lot of times when you have veteran players that have had success, they have a responsibility to help the younger players, and when you start to see some of your players do that, I think it's a very good indication of the closeness of your team and that chemistry that is so important."

Market watch

Boldin appears to be working on restoring his image. Always a hard worker and terrific teammate, Boldin's reputation took a hit when unhappiness with his contract affected his outlook during the playoff run last season.

 Boldin
 Fitzgerald

Boldin said nothing inflammatory upon reporting to camp, a departure from his tack last offseason. He has also been staying after practice longer than usual to sign autographs and reconnect with fans. Perhaps he realized the Cardinals weren't going to suddenly cave to his demands. Teammate Adrian Wilson's ability to command a new deal after taking a low-keyed approach might also have resonated. ...

The thought of spending another season on the bench behind Kurt Warner hasn't dragged down Matt Leinart. To the contrary, Leinart seems to be in a better place this offseason. He rededicated himself to conditioning and reported at 227 pounds, as light as he can remember weighing since high school.

"Last year was so up and down, it was like a roller-coaster," Leinart said, recalling the battle he ultimately lost to Warner. "No one knew what was going to happen. It was a lot of pressure on me to perform. This year, I just feel more at ease. I'm more comfortable with the offense. I feel great. I feel like I can go in there and play. Now it's just a matter of time, when my opportunity comes, to make the most of it."...

As much as any superstar, Fitzgerald appears obsessed with improving and driven by fear of failure. The time he spent working with Jerry Rice armed Fitzgerald with new ideas, including drills to help Fitzgerald address what he considers to be his biggest weakness, coming out of his breaks.

"I picked his brain all week," Fitzgerald said. "Every night, we sat around and talked. The thing I was so impressed with about him, even at 46 years old, his mentality, he did every single drill we did. He didn't miss a rep or anything. ... I couldn't imagine when he was 25 or 26, what he was thinking. If I can have his same mentality at 25 that he has at 46, I'll do well."

Newcomer to watch

 
  Rick Scuteri/US Presswire
  Bryant McFadden gives the Cardinals a more physical presence in the secondary.

Former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden has already given the Cardinals an obvious physical presence in the secondary. Fitzgerald and Boldin have beaten him to the ball a few times, but McFadden's aggressive nature has stood out in camp to this point.

More broadly, McFadden hopes the Cardinals can establish the mentality that has helped make Pittsburgh so tough on defense over the years. He points to players holding one another accountable as the key. Arizona made progress in that area during its playoff run.

"In Pittsburgh, we went into a ballgame telling our offense, 'You give us 17 points, we will win,' and that wasn't out of a sense of cockiness," McFadden said. "That was from a sense of assurance and knowing we were going to get the job done, and being consistent at it, playing at a consistent level."

Observation deck

Warner might be a little stiff in his movements at times while he works through a painful rehabilitation from hip surgery. The procedure was relatively routine by NFL standards, however, and Warner should be fine for the regular season. He has started 31 consecutive games, counting playoffs, making him the most durable quarterback in the NFC West over the past two seasons. ... Davis, the defensive coordinator, retained much of the terminology from last season in an effort to smooth the transition. "And then I cleaned some of the extra verbiage out and I added some calls -- really some blitzes -- that I've had in my past so we can pressure some more and in more different ways," Davis said. ... The rapport Warner has developed with fourth receiver Jerheme Urban will make it tough for 2008 third-round choice Early Doucet to crack the rotation. Fitzgerald, Boldin and Steve Breaston are set as the top three. ... Second-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie continues to show the ability to contest balls that Fitzgerald would catch against most other defensive backs. ... Left tackle Mike Gandy struggled in the Super Bowl, but the Cardinals need him. An injury at that position might throw off the whole line. ... Whisenhunt appears unconcerned by the instability at tight end. He'll feel a lot better during the regular season if Stephen Spach continues his impressive rehab from knee surgery. Spach is a willing blocker and reliable player. The same cannot be said for 2006 third-round choice Leonard Pope, who jogged out a route and made a halfhearted effort to catch the ball during a drill on the first day of camp. ... Breaston was by far the most impressive player returning punts early in camp. ... The Cardinals are withholding judgment on 2007 second-round choice Alan Branch even though the nose tackle reported to camp in better shape and fared well against backups in pass-rush drills. Branch clearly has not earned the benefit of the doubt. ... Center Lyle Sendlein should be much better following shoulder surgery. ... While the Cardinals' recommitment to the ground game helped set up play-action fakes in the playoffs, the team's offensive stars aren't ready to change their offensive identity. "That was a good preview of things to come," Fitzgerald said, "but we don't want to run it too much."