NFC West: Darnell Dockett

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Darnell Dockett stood in the middle of the free weight section of the Arizona Cardinals' weight room Thursday looking the part of a team leader.

He was next to speak to the media, humbly waiting in the shadows while Michael Floyd talked about working out and what the Cardinals could build on in 2014.

When Dockett stepped in front of the cameras, he proved that behind him are the days of immaturity that led him to work out on his own, leaving his teammates back in Tempe. But he showed how he learned from his mistakes. And with the fourth quarter of his career approaching, Dockett better understands the need to develop chemistry as a team -- especially this year's Cardinals, who are on the cusp of breaking a four-year playoff drought.

[+] EnlargeDarnell Dockett
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinDarnell Dockett stressed the importance of offseason bonding during interviews with reporters.
When Dockett stayed home to work out, the Cardinals continued to lose. Coincidence or not, hindsight is crystal clear to Dockett.

"I've realized that over the years you have to bond with your guys in the offseason," Dockett said. "It's very important. We got a few guys that are not here that I'm texting them every day. I don't care what they say I'm literally going to blow their text messages up. We need you here.

"We're trying to do something important here."

That starts in April, long before the lights in University of Phoenix Stadium flicker on and the pyrotechnics welcome the Cardinals on to the field. Arizona is in the first week of its voluntary offseason strength and conditioning program and the response from team has been well received. Dockett estimated that the attendance rate is somewhere around 94 percent.

But guys aren't just showing up to collect their workout bonuses.

They're asking questions in meetings. The young players are using the veterans as resources. More younger players are going to Dockett for advice. He's telling them to take care of their body on and off the field.

And even the veterans are benefiting.

"It was great to go into the classroom and see some notes and some cutouts that I was actually familiar with," Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald told ESPN. "[Last year] was like learning Chinese. So coming in and having some familiarity with everything, it's been fun."

Late morning on Thursday, two groups of Cardinals alternated between the weight room and field conditioning. Although their focus is weights and running, they're spending their time learning about each other, talking about each other's families, for example.

The chemistry that will get Arizona past Seattle and San Francisco in December isn't developed in September or October, Dockett has learned.

"If you don't have it in the offseason, you're not going to have it in training camp. You're not going to have it in the season," Dockett said. "[Showing up] right now is just as important as showing up for the first game of the season.

"This is where you win your championship at. In a couple weeks we'll get 20, 30 more guys in from the draft and free agents. Right now, the foundation of this team is in the locker room and we've got a long way to go. Each and every day we have to capitalize and not take it for granted."

Just as he found out what it takes to become a better teammate, Dockett is learning -- on the fly, no less -- how to be a better leader. But in true leadership fashion, he's giving credit to his teammates for making his role easier.

"I say we got a lot of guys here that are enthusiastic to work," he said. "When you have that it's easier for me. It's easier for me to lead when guys just want to work. I don't have to say nothing. We're a long way from where we want to go as far as conditioning, strength and stuff like that.

"The best thing about it? We're here every day. We're going to every day. We not going to take no days off."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- While he spent 10 minutes Thursday talking about his latest free-agent addition to the Arizona Cardinals’ defense, Antonio Cromartie, general manager Steve Keim shed some light on where he may focus his draft picks in early May.

Keim identified depth and length across the defense as the team's primary needs, specifically at defensive end, outside linebacker, safety and inside linebacker.

“I think we’ve made some improvements,” Keim said. “I don’t want to step out on a limb and say we’re there yet. As a perfectionist, I think we all look at things and would like to be a little deeper in certain positions.”

Stocking up at those positions is planning for the future. The Cardinals will be on the lookout for Darnell Dockett’s replacement this draft, as well as a formidable backup to Calais Campbell. Trying to add depth to outside linebacker will be done because John Abraham and Lorenzo Alexander are getting close to the end of their careers and Arizona could be thin there after this season.

Safety has been a top priority since the season ended, especially since 17 of the 29 touchdowns thrown by other teams went to tight ends. Arizona would prefer a taller, more athletic safety it can match up with the likes of San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and St. Louis’ Jared Cook.

And with Karlos Dansby vacating one of the two starting inside linebacker jobs and Kevin Minter assuming that role in an “audition,” Keim said, the Cardinals are in need of relief behind Minter and Daryl Washington.

The Cardinals have the 20th pick in the first three rounds of May’s NFL draft (20th, 52nd and 84th) and the rest will be officially determined during next week’s league meetings. Arizona doesn't have a seventh-round choice, which was traded to Oakland as part of the Carson Palmer deal.

In his second season, Keim doesn’t want free agency to be as frenzied for the Cardinals as it has been the past two seasons. He’d prefer improving through the draft, but admitted that free agency is a great way to fill immediate needs.

“My whole goal and our whole goal as [an] organization is to be able to go in … [and] that we can sit there and look in the mirror and say we’re taking the best player available and the guy who helps the Cardinals the most,” Keim said. “I think through free agency we’ve afforded ourselves to do that.”

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 9
Preseason Power Ranking: 26

Biggest surprise: No one expected Arizona to struggle like it did throughout the first half of the season because an offensive mastermind, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, was in charge. Likewise, nobody expected the Cardinals to go on a tear through the final nine, going 7-2 to finish 10-6. A 10-win season for the Cardinals isn't to be ignored. They're tough to come by, but Arians was able to accomplish it in his first season, which nobody expected. He proved himself as a head coach at 61 and showed how great his offense is when a team can learn and execute it.

Biggest disappointment: Arians was dead set on riding running back Rashard Mendenhall this season with rookie Andre Ellington as his backup. And while Mendenhall was serviceable, it wasn't a successful move. Mendenhall finished with 687 yards on 217 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per carry -- just 35 more than Ellington on 99 more carries. Partially to blame for Mendenhall underachieving was a turf-toe injury that limited him for most of the season, but when he was healthy, he showed his true speed in only two games. Other than that, he struggled to break through the line as often as the Cardinals needed him to. He's not the future for Arizona at running back. That belongs to Ellington.

Biggest need: Everyone thinks the most obvious need is a left tackle, but with how the offensive line played during the last eight games, it may be the least of the Cardinals' worries. Arizona needs a big, fast safety who can defend tight ends. The 29 tight ends who faced the Cardinals this season accounted for 1,247 yards and 17 touchdowns on 98 receptions. The yards accounted for 30.7 percent of the total by opposing receivers and the 98 receptions were 26.7 percent of the catches made by opponents. But the most telling stat, and the difference between wins and losses, are the 17 touchdowns by opposing tight ends, which are 58.6 percent of the 29 total allowed by the Cardinals' secondary.

Team MVP: There were a handful of Cardinals who had good seasons on both sides of the ball, but there was one who really kept the pulse of the team alive. Veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby was shunned by Miami and took a huge pay cut to come to Arizona, and he proved to everyone in the league that, at age 32, he still had it. He was second in the NFL with 114 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks -- his most since his eight in 2006 -- and a career-high four interceptions. But his ability to impact a top-six defense near the line of scrimmage, sideline-to-sideline and then dropping back in coverage made him the most important player on the team.

All-NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
NFC Teams: East | West | North | SouthAFC: East | West | North | South

It’s become a common theme for Karlos Dansby to be left out of the postseason honors.

He wasn’t voted in at inside linebacker on this year’s All-NFC West team, losing out to San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman and Seattle’s Bobby Wagner despite finishing the season with the third-most solo tackles in the NFL with 114.

However, those Cardinals that did make it weren’t a surprise, especially on defense.

Arizona tied Seattle with four defenders on the 12-man team as all four defensive Pro Bowlers earned a nod. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was honored along with defensive end Calais Campbell, who were both Pro Bowl alternates. Linebacker John Abraham, who finished with 11.5 sacks and moved into the top 10 on the all-time sack list, was one outside linebacker and Patrick Peterson was named at cornerback, infiltrating an otherwise all-Seattle secondary. If Dansby had trouble making this squad, than Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington would've struggled cracking this rotation especially playing just 12 games because of a suspension.

Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd made up two-thirds of the division’s receiving corps, alongside a former Cardinal, San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin. And left guard Daryn Colledge was rewarded for a productive season by earning a nod, as well.
TEMPE, Ariz. – The Cardinals’ defensive line room looks like all the other position rooms deep inside the team’s practice facility.

It’s set up like a classroom, with desks for the players to take notes on and a computer for their coach, the teacher. There’s a white board and an overhead projector. There are windows with blinds. And a heavy door.

It was in this room that the league’s top-ranked defense against the run was built. But it wasn’t done through drills or personnel moves, but instead through one speech in September.

After a Week 1 loss to St. Louis, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner gathered his charges for what they expected to be another classroom session.

[+] EnlargeCalais Campbell
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsA new scheme this season has worked wonders for Calais Campbell and the Arizona defensive line.
It was anything but.

“We just really talked,” Buckner said. “[I asked them] why do you play this game? Why are you here? What did you want to get out of this game? Are you in it for the cars you can drive? The money you get? Because there’s only so much money you can get and you can’t drive but one car at a time.

“It’s got to be something bigger than that and you got to find that and if not, you have to be man enough to say, ‘This is not going to work for me because this is the ultimate team sport.’ You can’t be about I. You can’t be, ‘Well, I didn’t make a tackle.’ We don’t count that. We count wins. We count having success.”

Buckner was shooting straight from the hip with them and his approach worked because they knew Buckner had been there. Having played defensive tackle for 12 seasons in the NFL, he knew what the trenches felt like, smelled like, looked like. He’s been in rooms like that before. He’s heard coaches try to give those speeches.

He’s also seen teams underachieve with talented defensive lines and he wasn’t about to let that happen in Arizona. Throughout that meeting, he called out everyone regardless of stature, longevity or success, but not in a way that drew their ire.

“I told them, ‘Honestly, I never make up stuff to make you look bad,’” Buckner told them. “‘I’m never going to make up stuff to make you look good. I’m a mirror. Whatever you showed me I’m going to show you a reflection. If you show me a bad play, I’m going to tell you you played bad. But, if you show me good play, were going to build on it.’

“And I think by doing that, a trust was built and guys were like, ‘Wow, maybe I do need to do a little bit better.’ And I challenged them.”

The Cardinals responded.

They enter the final week of the season ranked No. 1 against the run, a drastic turn from their 28th ranking last season, allowing 84.5 yards per game. Arizona hasn’t allowed more than 149 yards in a game and held Atlanta to just 27.

With the exception of a few backups such as Alameda Ta'amu, Frostee Rucker and Ronald Talley, it’s the same defensive line – Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams – as last year running the same 3-4 defense, but there’s one minor twist. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles eliminated the multi-gap scheme up front and replaced it with single-gap system.

“What it’s done is allow these guys to let their natural God-given ability play because they can play fast, they’re not thinking,” Buckner said. “They’re not wondering, ‘What is this offense going to do to me?’ We try to preach in our D-line room, they really should call us the offensive line because we’re going to attack you and you’re going to have to defend whatever we’re going to do to you. So that’s our mindset.”

The players have embraced not being restricted on how they get off the line, which has given Arizona’s defensive front more freedom and flexibility. And it’s helped the line regain its swagger. Campbell has eight sacks and Dockett 4.5 heading into the season finale and both were named Pro Bowl alternates. Last season, Campbell had 6.5 and Dockett 1.5.

“I think that it’s really just being able to attack and get off the ball and going forward,” Campbell said. “We have very explosive guys on this D-line, all of us, from top to the bottom, we really get of the ball. We’re aggressive, we attack and we make plays.

“This defense that we run, the scheme that we run now, benefits us and creates havoc in backfields, making running backs stop their feet and cut before they want to and allows linebackers to shoot gaps and make plays, as well. I love it.”

The ranking doesn’t mean as much to Cardinals coach Bruce Arians as it does to the players. They were here last year when the run defense was ranked 28th under former defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Arians is only concerned with two categories: points allowed and turnovers created.

Arizona isn’t bad in either. The Cardinals are allowing 20.1 points per game, seventh best in the NFL and have created 30 turnovers – 20 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries – which is the fourth most in the league.

Pairing the right scheme with the right players has been the biggest difference between last year and this year.

“It’s like a puzzle piece,” Buckner said. “You get all the pieces in the right places, the picture comes out perfect. But, you get one piece that don’t fit, then you’re like, 'What kind of puzzle is this?'”

But to the players who are locking horns every Sunday, being No. 1 is something to be proud of.

“That stuck with me the whole offseason and I was just upset with myself,” Williams said. “I felt like we could’ve did more [last season]. We put a lot of emphasis on it and it shows.

“We were aiming for top 5, but being No. 1, that’s being the best right now. We got to hold it up for one more week.”

Buckner used a word during his come-to-Jesus meeting in September that struck a nerve. He called the defensive line soft. When a team is ranked in the low 20s or even in the 30s, he told them that day, it means offenses are slicing through them like warm butter. Then Buckner turned on the tape and backed up his claims with visual evidence.

That meeting got Arizona’s defensive line focused.

It took a come-to-Jesus drive, however, to make the Cardinals see just how right Buckner was. With the Cardinals down two at San Francisco on Oct. 13, the 49ers started the game-clinching drive with 1:07 left in the third quarter. For the next 9:27, San Francisco milked the clock, running 12 times for 53 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown run that broke Arizona’s back and put the Niners up 29-22.

The Niners had 149 yards that week and four days later, Seattle ran for 135 in a game Arians has dismissed because of the short break. Then started a stretch of performances that solidified Arizona’s place as a defense that’s not worth wrecking with. In consecutive games, the Cardinals held offenses to 27, 76, 32, 80, 105, 100, 66 and 103 rushing yards.

“I think after that game we realized we can’t do that and win games,” Campbell said. “I think we took a step as in we’re going to shut down whoever we’re playing against the run and make them have to throw the ball to beat you.

“And it has worked for us so far.”

Pro Bowl selections: Arizona Cardinals

December, 27, 2013
TEMPE, Ariz. – Turns out no matter how hard Karlos Dansby campaigned to be chosen for his first Pro Bowl, it wasn’t enough.

Dansby was snubbed by all three components that went into voting for the 2014 Pro Bowl – fans, players and coaches. But the Cardinals are sending two defenders and a special-teamer to Hawaii.

A few weeks after cracking the top 10 of the all-time sacks leaders, veteran linebacker John Abraham was named to his fifth Pro Bowl for his third NFL team. Third-year cornerback Patrick Peterson doesn’t know what it’s like to not play in Hawaii in January, earning the third trip of his career. And in his second year, gunner Justin Bethel was chosen by the players and coaches after he was widely considered the best special-teams player in the NFL.

Defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, linebacker Daryl Washington and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald were named alternates.

That’s five of Arizona’s 11 defensive starters. But the most obvious one missing was Dansby. He’s having a career season: ranked second in the NFL with 109 solo tackles and two defensive touchdowns. His four interceptions are 10th best in the league and he has 6.5 sacks to add. He’s had the most complete season of any linebacker but, alas, his peers and the coaches around the league didn’t think he was worthy of a lei.

The Abraham selection was a bit of a surprise, but with 11.5 sacks at age 35 after signing on the first day of training camp, it’s deserved. After spending the majority of his career as a pass-rush specialist, Abraham was forced into an every-down role in Week 3 and flourished, not showing signs of wear and tear or aging.

Abraham's 11.5 sacks are tied for fifth overall in the NFL and tied for third in the NFC. His 50 tackles are his most since 2005, his last season with the New York Jets.

Thanks mainly to Bethel, the Cardinals have forced opponents to start 53 drives inside their own 20-yard line, tied for the second most behind Kansas City’s 53. The Presbyterian College product also has 18 special-teams tackles, has blocked two field goals and recovered one fumble.

Peterson, who became the seventh player in NFL history to be selected to his third Pro Bowl before he turned 24, leads Arizona with 28 passes defended and has three interceptions to complement his 38 tackles.

Washington’s selection is impressive because he was named an alternate after he was suspended the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Campbell and Dockett are two-thirds of the league’s top rush defense and Fitzgerald has 10 touchdowns for the first time since 2009.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

All Cardinals ready to play vs. 49ers

December, 27, 2013
TEMPE, Ariz. – If there is one game all season anyone on the Arizona Cardinals’ roster didn’t want to miss, this is it.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said “basically” everybody practiced Friday leading up to Sunday’s game against San Francisco. Linebacker John Abraham (groin), guard Daryn Colledge (back) and safety Rashad Johnson (ankle) were all limited Friday and are listed as questionable.

Everyone else practiced in full and is probable, including quarterback Carson Palmer (ankle and elbow), linebacker Daryl Washington (ankle), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (shoulder) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (finger).

“It looks like we’ll be full-go and ready to play,” Arians said. “It’s a big game. It’s fun to have the last one count. That’s what we wanted all year, for this game to matter and it matters.”

Cardinals' defense makes statement

December, 22, 2013
Calais CampbellJoe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals' defense sacked Russell Wilson four times and limited him to 108 passing yards.
 SEATTLE -- When Steven Hauschka’s foot connected with the ball for the opening kick of Sunday’s Cardinals-Seahawks game, neither team knew what was happening three time zones away.

The New Orleans-Carolina game wouldn't be over for another two minutes, meaning, unless word spread on the sideline, the Cardinals wouldn't know how much Sunday’s game truly meant until halftime, if they found out at all.

Nobody knew, Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said.

But as history has written it, the Panthers won, which, for the next 3 hours, 9 minutes, meant Arizona was playing for its postseason life. Lose and the Cards would be eliminated, rendering Week 17 against San Francisco meaningless. Win and, with help, the playoffs would still be a possibility.

The Cardinals found themselves in unfamiliar territory. They were the focus of the football world briefly, holding the mighty Seahawks down by their wrists and eventually putting a foot on their throat in a 17-10 victory. To many outside the West Coast, Arizona is associated with offense simply because its coach, Bruce Arians, is widely considered an offensive genius.

But to those in the know, this team isn't anything without its defense. It quietly became the league’s top-ranked unit against the run heading into Seattle, but it’s a well-built, well-rounded and talented group that proved Sunday that no matter how bad the offense is, the defense will give Carson Palmer as many chances as he needs to win the game.

Which is exactly what happened.

After the Cardinals held Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to a career-low 108 passing yards and slowed running back Marshawn Lynch to a crawl in the second half, Arizona got one last pass out of Palmer -- after four interceptions. He hit Michael Floyd along the left sideline of the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown that gave the Cardinals their most important win since Kurt Warner was quarterback.

“We didn’t want to have to rely on [the defense] as much as we did today,” Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “But that’s what being a team is all about -- when a group is struggling, the other one picks it up. That’s what the defense did for us a lot of times today.”

Regardless, for the first time since 2009, the Cardinals won a game in December that meant something and are in the playoff picture. And they did it by stopping a locomotive that many didn’t think would slow down until MetLife Stadium in February. And, now, Seattle is facing a possibility of not even winning the NFC West after its franchise-best 14-game home winning streak was snapped.

“Don’t get no better than that,” Arians said. “It’s why you play the game. Come into a venue like this -- fantastic venue, great fans -- and win, that’s why you play the game. That’s why we all grew up playing this game.”

But nobody on that field grew up thinking they were going to throw a season-high four interceptions in a make-or-break game. That was the reality Palmer lived Sunday, giving the ball away three times inside the Seattle 36 -- twice deep in the end zone.

Instead of entering the second quarter potentially up 14-0, Arizona had two of its first three possessions curtailed because of the picks. Yet, while Arizona wasn’t scoring, neither was Seattle. The Seahawks didn’t get on the board until 78 seconds into the second quarter.

“I guess that one defies the odds,” Arians said. “You usually don’t turn it over four times and win on the road. Well, when your lines of scrimmage dominate the game offensively and defensively, you’re gonna have a chance.”

A winning chance at that. While Palmer reverted back to his old ways, throwing four picks for the third time in his career, it was the defense that shouldered the burden of last year's 58-0 embarrassment and this October's loss for Arizona.

None of that has been forgotten.

Last Monday, a day after the offense shined in a win over the Titans, the entire defense gathered at the Cardinals’ practice facility in Tempe on what was supposed to be a Victory Monday. Instead of celebrating, however, the defense was studying.

The Cardinals watched tape of the Seahawks against San Francisco and St. Louis, two teams that played Seattle tough this season.

“Everybody was in there talking,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “[We were] making sure we understood what these guys wanted to do and making sure we didn’t let them get out to an early jump like we did in the first game [this season].”

For about two hours, the defense -- no coaches were allowed -- broke down film, discussed the matchups and prepared. During that meeting and another defensive players-only meeting Friday, the consensus was to put a lot of the responsibility on the Cardinals’ front seven.

“And they came out on top again,” Peterson said.

Arizona sent pressure Wilson’s way from the middle of the line and off the edges, causing the 5-foot-11 quarterback fits when he tried to find receivers, especially around the 6-foot-8 Campbell, who sacked Wilson twice. And when Wilson finally scrambled away, more often than not, he was surrounded by a bevy of defenders from all three levels.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsSeattle RB Marshawn Lynch was held in check by the Cardinals' No. 1-ranked run defense.
Wilson completed 11 of 27 passes for 108 yards, a touchdown and an interception while getting sacked four times.

“For us to step in there and get pressure and get some three-and-outs, and get them frustrated, that was huge for us because it really showed that we came to play,” Campbell said.

Arizona knocked Seattle off its offensive equilibrium all day. The Seahawks were 2-for-13 on third down and had just 10 first downs. They managed just 192 yards, the second time they've been held to fewer than 200 this season.

To win on the road this late in the season, a little luck needs to be mixed with skill.

After Malcolm Smith returned a Palmer interception to the Cardinals' 3 later in the second quarter, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Lynch would power it in for a touchdown to give Seattle the lead and momentum heading into halftime. He bulldozed his way to the 1, and then Arizona stopped him on second and third down from the 1 before a formation penalty forced Seattle's field goal attempt to move back to the 6. Then Hauschka bounced the chip shot off the left upright, keeping the score tied at 3.

Seattle had seven three-and-outs, three drives of four-and-out, a drive of six plays and one of just a single play, on which Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby picked off Wilson on a controversial call after the ball bounced off Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin’s arm.

But that wasn’t even the most impressive part of the defense’s day.

Lynch had 60 yards on 11 carries in the first half. He kept the Cardinals working, churning his legs for yards after contact throughout the first two quarters. Then they stopped.

Lynch wasn’t going to be the reason Arizona lost. He had just 11 yards on seven carries in the final 30 minutes after the Cardinals stopped him where he couldn’t start.

To Dansby -- who’s making his case for defensive player of the year with 109 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks and four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) -- stopping Lynch revolved around one idea.

“Hit him. We had to put a hat on him,” Dansby said. “We got somebody in front of him, and everybody else rallied to the ball. That is the name of the game, get to the ball. That is what we were saying all week long. Somebody storm up, and everybody else rally to the ball.”

The Seahawks didn't have an off game on their own. Everything that went wrong was forced by Arizona’s defense, which needed a win like this, on the road, to validate the previous 14 games.

Even though they’re not yet attending the playoff party, the Cardinals proved here that they’ll be worthy of an invite.

“We showed,” Peterson said, “that we can play with the best of them.”

Cards feel urgency to win in NFC West

December, 5, 2013
TEMPE, Ariz. – Bruce Arians laid down the law Monday morning.

The focus, the Arizona Cardinals' coach told his team, was to be solely on beating the St. Louis Rams on Sunday and finally, after a year and three months, winning an NFC West game.

“If we’re ever going to do anything, we better start winning [in] our division,” Arians said. “That’s our only focus this week. I don’t want to hear about anything else in our locker room except winning a division game, so that’s the message.”

For half the locker room, the burden of eight straight division losses is starting to mount. After beating the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 9, 2012, the Cardinals dropped their next five against West foes. They are 0-3 this season.

The Cardinals didn’t need Arians to tell them something they already knew: It’s time for a win.

“Yes,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said with a smirk, “it’s been a point of emphasis.”

But not just from Arians.

“He’s mentioned it,” Fitzgerald said. “Just amongst teammates. It’s been well over a year, and to think we’re sitting here fighting for a wild-card playoff position and we haven’t won a division game in a year and almost a half, I mean it just shows you how strong our division is. But we’re not going to be considered the stepchild any longer. We got to come out and win some of these games.”

Losing streaks happen, but none have been as grueling as the current stretch. The Cards lost seven straight West games over the 2002 and '03 seasons, six through 2010-11 and five in 2003-04, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Even the new regime is starting to see just how bad it is. First-year offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin finally realized how big a deal the losing streak was after he’d read about it every day or seen it come up on TV. It’s now a monkey the Cardinals need to get off their back, Goodwin said.

While Arizona needs a division win to stay in the hunt for a wild card, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and linebacker Daryl Washington said it’s imperative to win every game, not just against West foes.

“I think you play enough football to know you got to win in your division,” Dockett said. “I think, me personally, I feel like you have to win every damn game. It’s nothing dramatic. It’s not no pressure put on us or anything like that. It’s go out and play ball, work hard and it’ll take care of itself.”

The more Arizona thinks about it, Dockett warns, the better chance it has of losing. But Washington doesn’t want Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia to snowball into another losing streak. And like Dockett, he believes everything will take care of itself.

Even for someone who’s been on the team for all eight straight losses, Washington was a little taken aback hearing the number aloud.

“Damn,” he said.

A loss Sunday and Arizona can all but kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. But a win would keep them in a position to be in the right place at the right time. Throughout the locker room, the sense of urgency to win is growing by the day.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it higher,” Fitzgerald said. “This is a must-win game for us. It’s plain and simple: We have to win. Look at Philadelphia. They got the same record as us, Dallas has the same record as us, Carolina is obviously surging right now, playing against New Orleans twice [in the final four games]. New Orleans already beat us. Obviously, San Francisco is playing a big game this weekend.

“There’s no margin for error. It wouldn’t matter if it weren’t a division game, but that it is a division game, it even makes it that much more important.”
Larry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoyGetty ImagesLarry Fitzgerald and LeSean McCoy will look to keep their teams streaking on Sunday.
Bruce Arians and Chip Kelly come at their news jobs from very different places.

Kelly was the hot college head coach of the moment, hired by Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to replace the institution that was Andy Reid. Arians was a college head coach, too, at Temple back in the 1980s. He got his job with the Arizona Cardinals, though, based upon years as an often-overlooked NFL assistant.

And now here they are. Arians’ Cardinals are 7-4 with a four-game winning streak, while Kelly’s Eagles are 6-5 after a three-game winning streak. Their teams meet at Lincoln Financial Field Sunday in a game with major NFC playoff implications. reporters Josh Weinfuss, who covers the Cardinals, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, take a closer look at the matchup.

Phil Sheridan: Bruce Arians is best known in Philadelphia as one of the rare coaches to survive a stint at Temple University. Nationally, he’s known for winning the Coach of the Year Award after filling in for Chuck Pagano last year in Indianapolis. How has he conducted business and how much of this four-game winning streak results from that?

Josh Weinfuss: I think all of it. Arians is the ultimate players coach and from everything I’ve heard about him from former players and current Cardinals who were with him in other places, he hasn’t changed a bit. He’ll tell the players like it is and if they can’t handle it, they have to figure out a way to deal with it. He’s not big on the sugarcoating, and the players appreciate it. As a head coach, he’s taken a little bit from each of the coaches he worked for and put it into play in Arizona. He’s learned how to delegate and put together a staff that complements him very well. On top of it all, he’s an offensive genius who stayed patient with this team while they learned his scheme, and it’s paying off.

On the topic of schemes, is Kelly’s high-octane offense here to stay or will he need to adapt as the season progresses?

Sheridan: Probably a little of both. Kelly already has adjusted to some degree. The foundation of his approach seems to be figuring out how a defense is designed to stop his offense and then exploiting whatever weaknesses and mismatches created by that design. When teams played man coverage and pressed to eliminate his bubble screens, Kelly shrugged and started throwing deep. When the Giants and Cowboys found a weakness in his run-blocking scheme, Kelly adjusted and got LeSean McCoy back on track. Kelly seems to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game with opposing coaches. That said, the foundations of what he does -- creating mismatches and exploiting weaknesses -- are as old as football. He just has some intriguing ways of getting there.

While we’re on that side of the ball, how has Todd Bowles been able to win the hearts and minds of a defense that thrived under former coordinator Ray Horton? And how important is having Karlos Dansby back in the fold?

Weinfuss: Bowles made one minor change up front and he’s been the glimmer in the defensive line’s eyes ever since. He went from a multi-gap system to a one-gap scheme, which has taken out the thinking from football. Now, the Cardinals front line can just rear back and go, and the changes are obvious. Darnell Dockett is having his best season in a while, Calais Campbell has emerged as one of the toughest defensive ends in the league and nose tackle Dan Williams has plugged the holes in the middle, forcing plays out to the edges -- and right into the hands of guys like John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy, Daryl Washington and, of course, Dansby. He’s playing at the lowest weight of his career and he’s been able to fly around, going from sideline to sideline with relative ease for a guy who’s been in this league for 10 years. While everything for the Cardinals’ defense starts up front, each level has been benefiting from the line’s presence.

Let’s stay on defense. The Eagles have the worst pass defense in the league. How can they muster enough plays to slow the Cardinals' recently high-flying passing game under Carson Palmer?

Sheridan: Josh, that could be the question that determines the outcome of this game. The only answer I have is that, somehow, that’s just what the Eagles' defense has been doing in the seven games since Peyton Manning hung 52 points on them. They give up a lot of yards, but they haven’t given up more than 21 points in a game since then. They’ve been good in the red zone and have started generating pressure and, in turn, turnovers. Palmer provides a very good measuring stick. The Eagles have thrived against the Mike Glennons and Scott Tolziens of the world, although in fairness they played well against Eli Manning and Tony Romo, too. But Palmer and that Larry Fitzgerald fellow definitely represent the kind of test the Eagles must pass before being considered a good defense.

Speaking of Palmer, the NFC Offensive Player of the Week, there seems to be a Kurt Warner vibe at work here -- veteran guy getting one more shot to prove he still has it. Warner did -- does Palmer? What’s the ceiling on the offense with him at the helm?

Weinfuss: All the evidence from the past four games points to yes -- Palmer does have a Warner-esque resurgence in him, but that’s only because the Cardinals’ offense is finally working. If it was still struggling, we’d be talking about Palmer being replaced either now or after the season. Crazy how that works. Palmer is the perfect quarterback for a Bruce Arians scheme. He has a big arm and can make throws on a dime. And those two things will carry this offense as far as it can until Palmer makes bad decisions. Even though the bad decisions have been cut down during the Cards’ four-game winning streak, it would be na´ve of anybody to think they’re totally done with. Arizona is just getting lucky. Twice against the Colts, Palmer had probable interceptions dropped, and against Jacksonville two weeks ago, a well-timed timeout by Arians saved Palmer from a potentially costly interception. If Palmer can take chances without making ill-advised throws, the ceiling is quite high, especially with the depth at receiver, tight end and running back.

A lot of University of Arizona fans out this way are loving the fact that Nick Foles is starting and playing well. Is he Mr. Right for the Eagles in Kelly’s offense or Mr. Right Now?

Sheridan: That’s the question that will haunt the Eagles through the offseason. Foles has had some of the luck you described Palmer having. That seven-touchdown game against Oakland was partly the product of some of the worst defensive football I’ve ever seen (and I watched Nnamdi Asomugha jog through two years here). But Foles is smart, he’s accurate and you can see him gaining confidence and comfort with every game. Clearly, he is not the quarterback Chip Kelly would order from the factory. But as he continues having success and winning games, you have to wonder how far Kelly is willing to tailor his offense to Foles for the long haul. It’s the decision that will define the Kelly era, at least for the next few years. My gut says Foles is a good NFL quarterback, but Kelly will make a move to find his guy at the earliest possible convenience. If Foles keeps this up, though, my gut might be proven wrong.

Defense recovers to slow Jags to crawl

November, 17, 2013
It had been 329 days since the Jacksonville Jaguars last scored a touchdown inside the empty confines of EverBank Field.

It had been even longer since the Jags won there.

When the Arizona Cardinals made the cross-country trip this weekend, trading in desert sunshine for beach rays, they would’ve rather both of those streaks continue another week, but if one had to end, they preferred the former rather than the latter. And it did, probably earlier than anyone expected.

The Jags scored on their first two drives Sunday, putting the Cardinals in a seven-point hole after the first quarter. But that’s all Jacksonville would get. After getting 111 yards in the first quarter, the Jags managed just 163 for the rest of the game.

“We knew once we settled down a little bit and they got rid of the gimmicks, they had to play football,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “In the second half we were ready to play football and we took over the game. We played hard, sound and fast. Once we got past all the gimmicks, the tricks they had up their sleeve, they had to come back to reality.”

Jacksonville skipped the conventional plays and went to the gimmicks to start the game and it worked. They also took advantage of one of the Cardinals’ only liabilities: covering tight ends.

Chad Henne’s first three completions -- including a 62-yard touchdown – were all to tight ends. After a raucous first quarter, the Cardinals settled down on defense, especially up front. Arizona held Jacksonville to just 13 yards through three quarters, eliminating Maurice Jones-Drew as a threat. It forced the Jags to take to the air enough times that defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said after the game that he expected the Jags to run more.

But after Henne threw for 105 yards in the first quarter he tossed for just 150 the rest of the game.

“I thought we did a great job against the passing game,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “This is the most screens I’ve ever seen in my life in one game so I believe it’s a credit to our defensive coordinator, our secondary.”

FTP: Cardinals now No. 2 defense

November, 15, 2013
Flush the Pocket will be your daily morning dose of the Arizona Cardinals. It’ll recap the top story line from the previous day and give you a look at what everyone is saying locally and nationally.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Last week, Football Outsiders made a splash, naming the then 4-4 Cardinals the best defense in the NFL.

“The Cardinals have a strong all-around defense, ranking second against the run and third against the pass,” the website wrote a week ago.

When the analytical website’s rankings through Week 10 came out, the Cardinals dropped from first to second by a hair -- .3 percent -- behind the Carolina Panthers. Arizona is still No. 2 with a Defense-adjusted Value Over Average of 19.5 and a weighted defense of 21.

Check out Football Outsiders’ defensive rankings here.

In other news…

Craig Morgan of with a look at Darnell Dockett’s past and future.

Darren Urban of writes about John Abraham getting sacks in bunches.

Kyle Odegard of writes about the Cards’ defense playing well in the second half.

Cardinals haze but know their limits

November, 5, 2013
TEMPE, Ariz. -- As more information comes to light about how Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito reportedly bullied teammate Jonathan Martin beyond the rookie hazing phase, one comment has stood out to players in the Arizona Cardinals' locker room.

Incognito crossed a line when he used a racial slur toward Martin, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.

"There's no place in our game, no place in our society for that type of behavior," Fitzgerald said Tuesday.

According to multiple reports, Incognito left Martin a voicemail in April in which he uses the slur among other derogatory comments.

Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett has had his own issues with Incognito from years of facing him in the trenches when Incognito played for the St. Louis Rams. Dockett wasn't surprised to hear about the offensive lineman verbally assaulting his teammate. Not just any teammate, Dockett pointed out, but the one guy who lines up next to you on the left side of the offensive line every Sunday.

"I don't think no one in the NFL in the last 70 years would do something like that," Dockett said. "That's why I said it doesn't surprise me that that guy does it. Everybody talking about it and I'm looking like, are you surprised he did that?

"When you try to bully a guy on your team, that's so classless to me. I feel bad for the young guy because I do feel like, as a veteran, you're supposed to help the young guys develop and help him develop to be a better player on and off the field, and not abuse him and send him text messages and call him the N-word and things like that.

"Again, I don't have no respect for the guy."

Allegedly, Incognito's disdain toward Martin began last season when Martin was a rookie. The Dolphins hazed the rookies, like every team in the league does, said Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby, who played for the Dolphins the past three seasons. It's a rite of passage in the eyes of the veterans, who went through the same rituals when they entered the league.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has put restrictions on his veterans. This year's rookies were allowed to bring veterans breakfast and water, and carried their pads and helmets off the field after practice. During training camp, one night was dedicated to giving the rookies haircuts.

That was the worst of it, and Arians made sure of it.

"You just go and say it, 'This is all you're allowed to do,'" Arians said. "We let our guys cut some hair and hair grows back. Your feelings get hurt a little bit if you have an ugly haircut but at least you can fix it in a month. That's the extent of what we're going to do around here.

"I don't worry about it because I don't see that happening here."

Dockett said the Cardinals' vets treat rookies with the Golden Rule -- Do on to others as you'd want others to do on to you. To Dockett, that means no name calling, no bullying, nothing that would make them look at the vets as adversaries.

While the general idea of rookie hazing is to form a bond that will withstand a season and potentially even longer, they're still teammates at the end of the day, Dockett said. And why would a veteran want to harm a relationship that could help the team in the long run, Dockett wondered.

"We still understand that that's one of our teammates and we're going to need him at some point," Dockett said. "We want them to look at us like big brothers, if they have any questions. We don't want a young guy looking at us like we're an enemy, [thinking] he don't like us and things like that. That's not how you build chemistry at all because I do believe at some point on every football team you're going to need a young guy to step up and play a big part and a role in trying to have some success.

"We don't come close to that."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Darnell Dockett didn’t stop.

During the four weeks linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended, Dockett badgered him with text messages and conversations about what could’ve been had Washington been on the field. Dockett specifically singled out two games, the St. Louis and New Orleans losses, over and over.

Had Washington been defending Rams tight end Jared Cook and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, the Cardinals could’ve been undefeated, Dockett would tell Washington. Sunday against San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, Washington has his chance to prove Dockett right.

Around the Cardinals locker room, the widespread belief is that Washington is the answer to handling the big, fast tight ends. However, the coaches don’t necessarily agree.

“Daryl’s not a tight end stopper,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “Daryl’s a piece to our defense.”

Washington is an inside linebacker, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians made sure to point out. If Davis lines up out wide, Washington won’t be chasing him.

Someone might want to, however. How Davis plays has been a sign of how the Niners will fare. When he’s had a touchdown catch, the 49ers win. In San Francisco wins this season, Davis had 11 catches for 204 yards and four touchdowns. In losses, he’s had three catches for 20 yards and zero touchdowns.

The formula seems easy: Stop Davis and you stop the 49ers.

Washington will be part of the coverage team on Davis, who could be bracketed by the Cardinals, with a safety over the top and Washington underneath. Whoever goes outside to cover Davis, the other will be inside.

“It’s tough to defend a guy like that because he’s not your ordinary tight end,” Washington said. “He’s a guy who can block and who can run like a small receiver. Then he’s big, at that, so you have to be able to be physical with him but also be able to run up with him because he can get up into you and push off and separate kinda like [Atlanta tight end] Tony Gonzalez does. I match up with him pretty well.

“We have a good game plan for him. I’ll just say that.”
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is questionable for Sunday's game at San Francisco with a hamstring injury, head coach Bruce Arians said Friday.

Larry Fitzgerald
Arians said it's the same left hamstring Fitzgerald tweaked Sept. 11, but the injury is in a different spot.

"We'll wait and see by game time," Arians said.

Fitzgerald was limited Wednesday and Thursday but practiced in full Friday. After seeing how the hamstring hampered him during the Lions game, Fitzgerald will be cautious Sunday.

This is just the latest setback for Fitzgerald, who has 24 receptions. That's fewest through the first five games of a season since 2004, his rookie year, when he had 22, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Fitzgerald hasn't lived him to his Hall of Fame standards in his last 21 games. He has just two games with at least 100 receiving yards during that span and has a total of 1,086 yards, far less than the 1,411 yards he had in 2011.

Other injury news"

Rookie LB Kenny Demens (hamstring) was also listed as questionable.

Listed as probable were LB John Abraham (shoulder), LB Jasper Brinkley (groin), G Daryn Colledge (shin), DT Darnell Dockett (groin), S Rashad Johnson (finger), LB Kevin Minter (hamstring), DE Ronald Talley (wrist), LB Daryl Washington (knee).