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A Bunch Of Hope From The Defense

Cardinals need playmaking unit to be sharp down the stretch

One of the clichés that likes to live in NFL locker rooms is that turnovers come in bunches, so maybe the way that the Cardinals were forcing change of possession last weekend in Atlanta made some sense.

Maybe not. Maybe there's no way to explain the amazing tic-tac-toe fumble recovery the Cardinals sprinkled in among their five interceptions, where linebacker Sam Acho poked the ball loose from Jason Snelling from behind, with cornerback Greg Toler launching himself out of bounds to save the potential fumble and safety Rashad Johnson being in the right place at the right time.

Maybe the Cardinals' defense, which had lost some of its early season momentum heading into the bye, just regained what they had misplaced.

The headlines were dominated by the Cardinals' quarterback change and struggles on offense, and that makes sense. The Cards do need to find a more effective offense to climb out of the hole within which they find themselves in.

The defensive effort wasn't any less impressive in a loss, however.

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton had mentioned last Friday he and his coaches had noticed a mentality from the unit leading up to the Falcons' game that echoed what the coaches had seen leading up to the upset win in New England. In hindsight, the Cards' defense might have better served emulating their week before the Eagles' blowout.

Mind you, this was a team that was without defensive end Calais Campbell, who is playing at a Pro Bowl level. It was after the team knew captain and strong safety Adrian Wilson was going to lose some snaps as Horton shifted his gameplan.

Yet from the very first play – when Johnson grabbed a Matt Ryan pass intended for but instead bouncing off the hands of receiver Roddy White for a pick – there was a different vibe.

It's been said many times by many people the Cardinals were going to have to be reliant on their defense this season. As constructed, that was clear even before the season started, before there was a four-game winning streak and before a six-game losing streak. The contrast between the two sides of the ball hadn't been quite as stark as it was in Atlanta, but it was there.

Make no mistake, there were things the defense could have done better. Linebacker Daryl Washington acknowledged this, and there were a pair of particular moments that rung true. One was the Falcons' late field-goal drive in the waning seconds of the first half, after the Cardinals had taken a 16-13 lead that seemed destined to carry them into halftime.

The other was what turned into the game-winning touchdown drive, when Ryan was able to move his team 70 yards for the final points in big chunks and able to convert one third-down inside the 10, when a stop would have meant the game would have only been tied.

The defensive players thought of this. There is frustration six turnovers wasn't enough, but there is a knowledge one more stop might have been enough.

Still, the defensive performance was something the Cardinals should be able to use for a victory. The Cardinals had seven passes batted by non-defensive backs, and tips by Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams led directly to interceptions by William Gay and Acho, respectively. Washington and safety Kerry Rhodes had the other two interceptions.

"When you play like that," Washington said, "you kind of think that nine times out of 10, you're going to win the game."

I've been around long enough to remember another defense feeling that way. In fact, it was a "positive" question about the Cardinals forcing Rex Grossman into four interceptions and two lost fumbles that jolted Denny Green into his infamous "The Bears are who we thought they were" speech. That game too left the Cards scratching their collective heads when it was over.

But that defense, while improving and featuring a young Dockett and an in-his-prime Wilson, wasn't as good as this defense. That unit struggled to match that kind of play the rest of the season. This year's group has proven they can play at that level more than once.

The Cardinals – as a team – need them to play that way every week. Maybe performances like that can come in bunches too.

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