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Cardinals' answer to Cam Newton, Greg Olsen? A converted safety playing inside linebacker

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals' answer to stopping the Carolina Panthers' 6-foot-5 quarterback and tight end -- yes, they're the same size -- stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 211 pounds.

On paper, it doesn't add up.

On the field, however, linebacker Deone Bucannon has proved he's the Cardinals' best line of defense against Carolina's Cam Newton and Greg Olsen. He's a converted safety, which means he has the speed to track down the skill players who get through the defensive line and the vision to read plays as they develop. He also can hit like a linebacker.

His toughest challenge this season -- which has included defending Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers twice, and Colin Kaepernick and Teddy Bridgewater once each -- may come in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. The Panthers' offense runs through Newton, an MVP candidate, and often includes Olsen.

So, just how important is Bucannon to the Cardinals' defensive game plan against Carolina?

"Huge," inside linebacker Kevin Minter said. "If you think about it, the guy, with the matchup problems you get nowadays in this league, with tight ends that are pretty much receivers, with a guy like Buc, I feel like it evens the playing field a bit. With him this week we probably got him doing a lot of the coverage stuff and doing the spying stuff for the most part. I mean, he's a huge part of the game plan this week."

Being undersized compared to Newton and Olsen doesn't concern Bucannon's teammates.

"As far as tackling, I would put Deone against anybody," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "He's going to bring them down. I don't care how the tackle looks or anything, Deone is going to get that guy down, point blank, period.

"I don't see tackling as an issue as far as him tackling Cam Newton or Greg Olsen."

In just his second year, Bucannon led Arizona with 109 tackles while playing just six snaps at safety this season. His transition to linebacker, which began after he was drafted in the first round in 2014, has coincided with the Cardinals' improved defense against tight ends.

In 2013, coach Bruce Arians' first season in Arizona, the Cardinals allowed 963 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns to tight ends. In Bucannon's rookie season in 2014 that dropped to 825 and six. This season, tight ends accounted for 562 and four.

Bucannon allowed eight passes for 105 yards and no touchdowns when playing against the top seven tight ends this season.

"Being a safety and coming down to that linebacker position, he's faster than most linebackers," Peterson said. "He can dissect plays a little bit quicker than most linebackers. Now, a lot of linebackers are a lot heavier than Deone.

"I think it's going to help us in the coverage as well as because he was a safety, so he's used to guarding receivers and tight ends."

Arians was simplistic with his reason behind why Arizona is better against tight ends: "An emphasis on better play." He also pointed out that tight ends such as Seattle's Jimmy Graham (formerly of New Orleans, with whom he had 134 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona in 2013) and former San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis caught some of their passes against the Cardinals when they were split out wide.

"Greg Olsen is a whole new problem because he's everywhere," Arians said. "He's their focal point."

If the Cardinals can eliminate Olsen, who had 1,104 yards (a career high) and seven touchdowns on 77 catches this season, Arians feels Arizona can slow the Panthers.

"That's hard to do," Arians said.

Arians considers Olsen the best tight end in the league at "stretching the seams" and said it's clear he and Newton have a "great relationship." Olsen has been "tremendous" as Newton's "security blanket," cornerback Jerraud Powers said.

After the type of season Olsen had, Powers thinks he made a case to be considered the best tight end in the NFL.

"I think Cam feels like whenever he throws the ball to Greg, Greg, more times than not, is going to come down with it," Powers said. "He's been a tough matchup for guys the last few years in the league. It's just been kind of quiet, if that makes sense? This year, I think he's got the recognition he deserves as a tight end and he's been doing a good job."

And on Sunday, it'll be mainly up to Bucannon to make sure Newton doesn't find his safety net.

Yet, while Olsen has made a name for himself this season -- at least in the eyes of Powers -- so has Bucannon. His background as a safety and his recently added skill set as a linebacker have combined to produce one of the most unique players in the NFL.

"He can do so many different things for you a la [former Cardinals safety] Adrian Wilson," general manager Steve Keim said. "He can play in the box, he can be physical at the point of attack, his blitz ability is phenomenal with his straight-line speed and explosiveness.

"His ability to do different things makes us multi-dimensional from a schematic standpoint defensively and it gives us flexibility in certain packages."