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In Defense Of The Pass

Posted Nov 15, 2012

Cardinals have been effective against high-profile quarterbacks this season.

Cornerback William Gay celebrates an interception of Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Cards' most recent game.

The list of quarterbacks reads like a Pro Bowl ballot.

Aaron Rodgers. Michael Vick. Sam Bradford.

They’re Super Bowl champions, All-Pros and rookies of the year. This season they’ve all been part of the Murderer’s Row of quarterbacks lining the Cardinals’ schedule. And it’s not getting any easier this weekend with Matt Ryan.

If recent history holds true, Ryan won’t be throwing for 300 yards or completing 68 percent of his passes, both season means for the Atlanta quarterback. Instead, he’ll look like an average quarterback with an average arm who doesn’t have much time to make a decision. He’ll be swarmed by a Cardinals’ defense ranked second in passing yards allowed per game and forced to throw earlier than he’d prefer. But that’s not an anomaly. It’s what the Cardinals have done to most quarterbacks they’ve faced in 2012.

The Cardinals have held four quarterbacks – including Rodgers, Vick and Bradford – to less than 50 percent passing. Only two other teams can boast about such a feat: Pittsburgh and Houston. For the season, opposing slingers are completing 55 percent of their passes against the Cards. Even Rodgers looked mortal, throwing for 46 percent on Nov. 4, his lowest output of the season.

But it doesn’t matter who’s under center, the Cardinals have treated everyone the same, from New England’s Tom Brady to Miami rookie Ryan Tannehill.

“Any defensive guy would want to play against the best of the best,” linebacker Daryl Washington said. “I love the challenge. I’m a competitor. You have to love those moments, love those hostile environments. That’s the motivation right there.

“I mean, it’s been good to even experience being in that situation of playing against the best of the best. You’ve got to love it.”

The quarterbacks don’t. But in a league where everyone has a job to do, the Cardinals’ defense is getting its job done, even if Rodgers, Bradford (7-of-21 on Oct. 4) and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder (8-of-17 on Oct. 21) have left the field winners.

The recipe for the Cardinals’ ability to disrupt passing games isn’t a secret. It all starts up front.

The pressure from the front three of Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams and Calais Campbell cause a ripple effect throughout the linebackers and the secondary – but only if it works. Thus far, it’s led the Cardinals to the top of the league rankings in sacks per passing attempt (9.71 percent).

The formula is simple: the more pressure applied the faster the pocket collapses and the quicker the quarterback has to make a play. Quick plays leads to bad decisions.

“I think we’ve done a good job of getting pressure and being able to make the quarterback not be comfortable in the pocket,” safety Kerry Rhodes said.

But in order for the Cards’ pass rush to be effective and the sacks to add up, the defense has to work in unison starting up front.

“I think it’s just everybody working together,” Williams said. “In a 3-4 you have to work together. When we make a mistake it hurts everybody. I think everybody is trying to be accountable on defense. Everybody tries to do their job.”

The Cardinals’ pass defense has statistically outshined their rush defense. The pass defense is second in the league in yards allowed (194.6) while the rushing defense is 24th (126.1). But the Cardinals have been strong on first down, allowing first downs at a rate of 18.9 percent. That rate goes up slightly, to 29 percent on second downs, forcing teams to throw the ball.

That’s when the defense can roam wild and make all-everything quarterbacks look average, statistically at least.

“I think their scheme is solid. I think they do a great job with their pressures,” Ryan said. “They’ve got big, physical players in their front seven, at the linebacker position, and along their defensive line and then when you have a guy like (safety) Adrian Wilson too, who’s able to come from the secondary and be as stout and as strong in the running game (as) the pass game.

“When (Wilson) blitzes, it makes it difficult to go against and I think they’ve done a great job disrupting offenses throughout the year.”


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