Cardinals soaring due to defense, better QB

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
12:07
PM ET
The Arizona Cardinals are 7-4 this season and riding a four-game winning streak. After starting 26th in the preseason ESPN.com NFL Power Rankings, the Cardinals have now jumped to ninth and are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot.

When did this happen? How did this happen?

The Cardinals lost 11 of their last 12 games last season after starting 4-0, with the likes of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer at quarterback. The Cards finished the season with the league's worst Total QBR (20.6).

The poor quarterback play led to the offseason acquisition of Carson Palmer. Palmer has played well during the Cardinals’ winning streak, but his 47.6 QBR over the full season ranks 26th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks.

According to QBR standards, the jump in quarterback play for the Cardinals is from replacement level to league average. On it's own, that doesn’t vault a team to a 7-4 record. Palmer had a 51.7 Total QBR in Oakland but went just 8-16 as the starter.

Unlike the Oakland Raiders, the Cardinals have had one of the best defenses in the NFL the past two seasons, and quarterback play is no longer masking that.

How good is the Cardinals’ defense?
The Cardinals’ defense has been one of the most disruptive units over the last two seasons. Just ask Matt Ryan, who has thrown nine interceptions in his last two starts against Arizona (compared to 17 picks in 25 games against the rest of the NFL).

The Cardinals’ 37 interceptions are second in the NFL since the start of last season, one shy of the Chicago Bears’ 38. Cornerback Patrick Peterson has led the charge with 10, but 13 other players have intercepted passes.

The interceptions have led to a 37.8 opponent Total QBR in each of the last two seasons. Only the Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have been better this season (Arizona also ranked fourth last season).

The stout secondary allows the Cardinals to bring heavy pass rushes. No team has sent five or more pass rushers more frequently than the Cardinals this season (48 percent). Arizona has put opposing quarterbacks under pressure (sack or duress) on 36 percent of dropbacks with such pressure (19 percent with four or fewer rushers).

In addition to a strong pass defense, the Cardinals have been one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL this season. Only the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets have allowed fewer yards per rush than the Cardinals (3.5) this season.

The Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens are the only two teams in the top five of yards per rush allowed and Total QBR allowed this season.

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