A Closer Look: Arizona’s Defensive Front 7

Posted by Mike Wobschall on October 19, 2012 – 6:25 am

There was a period of time recently in which the Arizona Cardinals were one of the least-feared teams in the NFL. They registered just one winning season from 1985-2007. Just one in that entire span of years. Ken Whisenhunt took over as head coach in 2007, and since then the Cardinals have been a tough team to beat. In 2008 they went all the way to the Super Bowl, losing a heart-breaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The 2012 version of the Cardinals is definitely a Whisenhunt-type of team, rather than the type of team Arizona fielded during that incredible drought from the mid-80s to ‘07. And a big reason for the team’s success recently – they’re 11-4 in their last 15 games – is their stingy defense, particularly their defensive front 7. The talented defensive front 7 is the subject of today’s A Closer Look…

So far, so good
Through the first 6 weeks of the 2012 season, the Cardinals defense ranks tied for 5th in points allowed per game (15.8) and 10th in yards allowed per game (329.3) and passing yards allowed per game (216.0). Their run defense has been stingy, too, as they’ve gone 14 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. This season, they’ve held some quality RBs in check – Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch (85 yards); New England’s Stevan Ridley (71); Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy (70); Miami’s Reggie Bush (67); St. Louis’ Steven Jackson (76); and Buffalo’s dual attack of Fred Jackson (53) and CJ Spiller (88). The last player to rush for 100+ yards against them was Jackson in November of 2011.

It all starts up front
So who are these defenders making life tough for opposing offenses? Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier mentioned two of them during a press conference earlier in the week.

“Both (Calais) Campbell and (Darnell) Dockett are guys who, boy, you really have to know where they are. They create havoc for your offensive line,” Frazier said. “They’ve got some (other) guys who can make plays, but Calais Campbell, his size alone creates problems and he has great strength and great athleticism, along with Dockett. Both of those guys are a couple of the reasons why their defense is so stout and so good. They have a very, very good defense.”

Past performances, including their performance so far in 2012, support Frazier’s opinion. Dockett has been one of the best DTs in the NFL since the Cardinals chose him with a 3rd-round pick in 2007. He has 28.5 sacks since 2007, more than any other DT in the NFL. Campbell, who measures in at an incredible 6-8, 300 pounds, was a 2nd-round pick in 2008 and has developed into a monster on Arizona’s defense. He was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the New England Patriots in Week 2, when he had 2.0 sacks, 10 tackles, 2 TFLs and 3 QB pressures in the Cardinals win. Vikings Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave also noted this week that Campbell has a knack for batting passes down, making him a threat even when he doesn’t reach the QB in time.

1st-tier performance at 2nd level
Football terminology defines LBs as being on the 2nd level of the defense. But there’s nothing “2nd level” about this group of Cardinals LBs. The group is led by talented youngster Daryl Washington. The former TCU star who plays inside LB for the Cardinals had a breakout season last year, collecting 111 tackles, 16 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, 2 INTs and 7 pass breakups (PBUs). He’s following that performance with another all-star worthy campaign this year.

Last week, Washington registered 14 tackles and a forced fumble, giving him at least 10 tackles in 3 of 6 games this year. Washington also has 4.0 sacks on the season, making him one of only five NFL defenders who’ve recorded at least 9.0 sacks and 2.0 INTs dating back to 2011.

On the outside, the Cardinals feature Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield. Now in his 3rd year, Schofield is coming into his own. The 4th-round pick (2010) out of Wisconsin missed much of his rookie season due to injury and was mostly a reserve last year, but this year he’s earning his stripes. Over the last 4 games, Schofield has totaled 23 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 4.0 TFLs and 8 QB pressures.

“They’ve got more explosiveness out there at their outside linebackers, that’s for sure,” Musgrave said on Thursday. “They’re younger, they’ve got more juice, their inside ‘backers are playing well. Paris (Lenon) is a veteran as we know, and the young guy from TCU (Washington) is playing better and better every time he gets on the field.”

The named not yet mentioned in this group of talented LBs is Sam Acho, a 6-2, 262-pound defender chosen in the 4th round out of Texas in 2011. The trio of Acho, Schofield and Washington – who are starting together (along with Lenon) for the first time in their careers – have combined for 97 tackles, 11.0 sacks, 16 TFLs, 4 PBUs, 3 forced fumbles and 25 QB pressures.

Long story longer, these aren’t your father’s Arizona Cardinals. In large part because of their defense, more specifically their defensive front 7, the Vikings will be in for a knock-down, drag-out fight on Sunday when Whisenhunt brings his club to Mall of America Field for a showdown between a pair of angry 4-2 teams coming off losses a week ago.

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