Cardinals Success in 09' Depends on Defense

As long as the Cardinals have quarterback Kurt Warner and a talented crew of receivers, led by Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the team's offense is going to be the center of attention. But the key to improvement in 2009 will be the defense, and the team took steps in the offseason to upgrade that side of the ball.

The biggest change came soon after the season with the firing of coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who had held the job for five seasons, including two under coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt and Pendergast didn't butt heads, but it was an uneasy relationship. When he took the job, Whisenhunt was encouraged to keep Pendergast, who had proven to be a capable and creative young coach.

But Whisenhunt would like to move this defense toward more of the 3-4 style used by the Steelers. Pendergast was open to that, but Whisenhunt thought the group's performance was too uneven in 2008.

So he replaced Pendergast with linebackers coach Bill Davis, but it's hard to say just how this group is going to look.

Offseason practices have been filled with work on the blitz, but that's typical for the team. While the club will still incorporate some 4-3 looks, especially in nickel situations, the 3-4 will be the base defense. The outside linebackers, who used to line up according to the strength of the formation, will now be fixed, regardless of the formation.

From a personnel standpoint, the club made a point of shoring up the secondary. Cornerback Rod Hood, beaten too often in 2008, was cut and replaced by Bryant McFadden. The club drafted safety Rashad Johnson of Alabama in the third round.

It appears the Cardinals could have their strongest secondary in years. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a rookie last year, has the tools to be a star. McFadden is solid and brings experience in this defensive scheme, and the starting safety duo of Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle should be formidable.

Throw Johnson into the mix, along with some other veteran safeties, and Davis will have considerable options in formulating game plans each week.

The Cardinals have a number of playmakers in the secondary. Wilson is a force of nature and can play as a linebacker or back in coverage. Rolle, who moved from corner to safety, has a knack for picking off passes. Rodgers-Cromartie became a shutdown corner in the second half of last season, and Johnson was a ball hawk at Alabama.

The club will need the group to produce because there are considerable questions up front. The chief one is the lack of a dominant pass rusher.

End Darnell Dockett gives offense's problems with his quickness but he will become a 3-4 defensive end, which is not a spot that produces a lot of sacks. Calais Campbell, the other starting defensive end, is just in his second year. Bertrand Berry, who led the team in sacks last year, turns 34 in August.

What all this means is that the Cardinals are going to have to rush the passer by committee. Davis figures to use a variety of blitzes that bring pressure from varying angles and different players.

How well the scheme works could prove to be the difference in making a second consecutive playoff run.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--Voluntary practices are sort of like boxing with your brother. It's fun until someone gets hurt. The Cardinals got a scare this week when receiver Larry Fitzgerald landed awkwardly while making a sideline catch.

Fitzgerald turned out to be fine but there were some anxious moments when he did the splits and stayed down. He tweaked a groin muscle but returned later in practice and ran routes.

"It was one of those ugly plays," said quarterback Kurt Warner. "When he popped up, I felt pretty good that it wasn't anything major but it's even better when he steps back into the huddle a few plays later and you're thinking, 'O.K., we're all good.'"

--Coaches are still waiting for nose tackle Alan Branch to lose weight and contend for playing time. A second-round pick two years ago, Branch has been a major disappointment. Whisenhunt often has used the analogy of a flickering light bulb when asked about Branch.

"It's still a little bit like that, but I'm hopeful," Whisenhunt said. "I hope he understands the sense of urgency when we get to training camp."

--Running back Beanie Wells, the team's first-round pick, will miss every voluntary practice because Ohio State is still in school. Assistant coach Curtis Modkins is talking to him often and sending him practice video.

"But it's not the same as being out here and experiencing it and talking to teammates," Whisenhunt said. "You do lose a little bit but we're trying the best we can to keep him up with what we're doing."

--The Cardinals front office continues to talk with the agents for safety Adrian Wilson and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. Word is that Wilson is closer to reaching an agreement than Dansby.

--Defensive Kenny Iwebema expects to be ready for training camp after undergoing surgery to remove a benign tumor in his chest last month. Iwebema should be able to start running soon and he can't wait. He's going stir crazy at home and has been through his DVD collection twice. "And I've got a lot of them," he said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not looking for somebody where I can say anything I want and it's just kind of O.K. I want somebody who will challenge me and push me to get better and learn things." -- Quarterback Kurt Warner on working with new quarterbacks coach Chris Miller

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