Wednesday, October 19, 2011
A closer look at the Cardinals' defense
By Mike Sando
The Arizona Cardinals' efforts to develop young players and integrate new ones on defense continues to stagnate.
The reasons are simple to understand.
First-year coordinator Ray Horton is installing a complex new system that would be tough for young players to absorb even with a full offseason. And the team's highest-priced defensive addition in free agency, inside linebacker Stewart Bradley, came from a vastly different system, so he was going to face a transition period as well.
Finally, the Cardinals haven't done a great job drafting young personnel to fit their new system.
I found useful comments New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick made recently in explaining why his team has leaned less heavily on a pure 3-4 defense:
"We've played a mixture of odd fronts and even fronts, but I just felt like from a starting point -- given the lack of spring opportunities to practice and meet, and the shortened training camp in terms of actual number of practices -- that from a teaching standpoint, we felt like there would be more carryover teaching our base defense and nickel defense really as one front.
"We wanted a lot of carryover between our run responsibilities and run fits, and some of our pressure defenses and things like that. We'll transition and build into some of our odds fronts, but we felt like in trying to evaluate young players, asking them to learn one system in a 3-4 and then learn another system in nickel [was too much].
"As you know, we were in nickel defense just as much as we were 3-4 defense because of teams using multiple receivers on early downs and two-minute and all those kind of things. So, we felt like it would be a better opportunity to evaluate our players and not try to over-install and put in a ton of defense.
"There are so many intricacies to a 3-4 defense that I just didn't know if we'd be ready to handle them this year."
The Cardinals have scaled back. And, unlike the Patriots, they have not had Belichick teaching and overseeing their defense since 2000. Horton is finding his way as a coordinator and still getting a feel for the personnel he inherited. He also doesn't benefit from a Tom Brady-led offense putting points on the board and pulling out victories even when the defense falters.
What the Cardinals do have in their favor, at least this week, is great familiarity with the upcoming opponent, Pittsburgh. Horton coached the Steelers' secondary, so he should know how to scheme for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Arizona coaches Ken Whisehunt and Russ Grimm, among others, also have roots with the Steelers. And Arizona is coming off a bye week, which gave coaches needed time to reassess.
The first chart shows snap counts and percentages for the Cardinals' defensive players, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Younger players such as O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho will presumably get more playing time as the season progresses. Bradley's snap counts are also much lower than I would have anticipated coming into the season.