Cards have options for decimated OLB unit

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Handling a loss is part of the game. And waiting on a star to return from an injury also comes with the territory.

Having to rebuild an entire position because of injuries, well, that might have been coach Bruce Arians’ "Welcome to the NFL" moment. And how he responds could spell out the rest of the season for the Arizona Cardinals.

A depth chart is built with this type of situation in mind. Both of Arizona’s starting outside linebackers, Lorenzo Alexander (Lisfranc) and Sam Acho (fibula), left Sunday's 31-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints with season-ending injuries. It was a blow to the defense, but it’s not the end of the world. Enter the backups. Rookie Alex Okafor filled in for Acho, but saw only five plays. Which, Arians said on national radio Tuesday night, was all he needed to tear a biceps tendon.

Okafor is out for the season, too.

Enter … well, nobody.

Teams aren’t built to back up the backup. Anyone who posits otherwise simply doesn’t understand the dynamics of football. With a 53-man roster, 22 spots are slotted for starters. Give each one a backup and that’s 44 players, with nine openings left for special teams and specialists.

[+] EnlargeSam Acho, Drew Brees
AP Photo/Bill HaberSam Acho recorded a sack of Saints QB Drew Brees before leaving with a broken fibula.
The only two outside linebackers to survive Sunday were John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy, both of whom tend to play as outside rushers off the line, or, in Shaughnessy’s case, sometimes in the middle of the line.

Losing three of a unit’s five players, no matter what team it is, can bring panic. But the Cardinals have reacted swiftly, trying to piece together a competitive outside-linebacking unit.

They filled out the roster with a couple of internal promotions, Dontay Moch and rookie Kenny Demens, from the practice squad (the latter move according to Arians) and signed Vic So'oto to the active roster. It’s a solid start to a process that may last the rest of the season. The outside linebackers could be liability until at least two of the injured players return next year.

Arians likes Moch’s speed, which can help this defense improve its pass rush. Arizona has recorded just one sack off the edge this season, by Acho, against the Saints.

The Cardinals have three primary options at this point: Stay with the new outside linebackers, revamp the entire unit -- inside and out -- when Daryl Washington returns Monday or change the defense, putting more men at the line of scrimmage and keeping the inside guys at their natural position.

If Arizona stays in a 3-4 with its current players, there’s a good chance the outside backers will be rotated throughout the season because of general manager Steve Keim's penchant to comb the waiver wire. If Moch produces, he can earn himself a consistent starting job because of how Arians operates. Arians works with who’s in front of him, and if Moch can prove he’s worthy of staying on the field, Arians will leave him there.

But if the Cardinals decide to revamp the entire unit, the new faces on the roster may be relegated to the sideline. There’d be a learning curve, however. With Washington returning, Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles could play him, Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley together. Herein lies the problem. All three are inside backers -- and so is rookie Kevin Minter, who’s out with a hamstring injury and isn’t expected back for a few weeks. If one is willing to convert to outside and the Cardinals want to keep their 3-4 scheme, they could move Moch or another addition to the outside until Minter returns.

If Arizona decides to change schemes, it could keep Washington, Dansby and Brinkley as the linebackers, although two would have to learn outside-LB tendencies. Then the Cardinals could bring Abraham off the edge more often, especially against pass-happy offenses -- of which the NFC West is full. According to Pro Football Focus, Abraham led Arizona with five quarterback hurries on 29 pass rushes.

There’s a lot to be decided in the next couple weeks, although most of the major decisions that would affect the rest of the season won’t likely happen until Washington returns.

This is the equivalent of a vacation gone wrong but you can’t leave. The weather is bad. Nothing seems to go right. But the Cardinals are just trying to get through this week, miles away from home, and salvage their trip by getting back to .500.

Josh Weinfuss

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter

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