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Horton's defensive philosophy moves forward
A year ago, coach Ken Whisenhunt hired his third defensive coordinator in five years, Ray Horton. Whisenhunt had fired the other two as he pursued someone who would install a system similar to that of the Steelers.
He found that coach, finally, in Horton, as assistant in Pittsburgh for seven seasons.
And for the first time in years, the defense was the strength of the team. Over the latter half of the season, the unit was steady, even dominant at times. And there is every reason to believe it could be better in 2012.
First, the players have spent a season under Horton and have learned his system. That's not an easy thing to do, and without offseason practices in 2011, Horton was limited in how quickly he could install his concepts.
That's not the case now. The entire defense is in, and the players have bought into the philosophy.
That took some time, too, because it requires unselfishness. End Darnell Dockett, for instance, had to accept playing a two-gap technique, which was different from what he had previously done.
Strong safety Adrian Wilson had to accept blitzing less than in previous seasons. Everyone had to learn not to freelance.
By mid-season, the group had bought in to Horton's system.
Entering 2012, it appears as if the entire starting unit should return.
End Calais Campbell is an unrestricted free agent, and re-signing him is the No. 1 priority this offseason. The two sides have been talking about a long-term deal for months, and it's questionable if they reach agreement before free agency begins.
The team, however, will keep Campbell by using the franchise or transition tag.
The Cardinals can't afford to let Campbell go. He's only 25 and had a breakout season in 2011. He led the team with eight sacks and he deflected 11 passes. He had one interception and blocked three field goals.
The biggest priority on defense is upgrading depth. The team has two young prospects at outside linebacker, Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield, but there isn't much behind them.
Depth is also a concern at defensive end, so it makes sense to re-sign end Vonnie Holliday, even though he will be 36 during the season.
Re-signing Campbell is the top priority on defense, but not the only item on the to-do list.
Richard Marshall proved invaluable because of ability to player cornerback and safety.
Marshall signed a one-year contract a year ago. He began the season as the backup to both Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson at cornerback, then replaced Jefferson midway through the season.
His real value, however, came when free safety Kerry Rhodes suffered a broken foot in the fifth game.
Coaches didn't feel comfortable playing backup safety Rashad Johnson in nickel situations. So they moved Marshall there.
Marshall had never played safety before, but he performed remarkably well. At end of the season, Horton called him his most valuable player.
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