Safeties Rashad Johnson (26) and Tony Jefferson celebrate a play against the Bengals this preseason.
The nicknaming of a secondary is serious business, and Tony Jefferson doesn't want the Cardinals to accept the first thing that gained traction.
When cornerback Antonio Cromartie was signed as a free agent in March, safety Tyrann Mathieu quickly tweeted 'NO FLY ZONE,' and since then, it's been a term connected to the team's defensive backs. As the regular season nears, Jefferson hopes it's not etched in stone.
"No fly zone, I feel like that's been used by other people," the second-year safety said. "Those words have been used lightly. A lot of guys have been saying 'No fly zone' but they're getting deep-balled on all the time. We should have a meeting."
When his complaint was relayed to the more tenured players in the secondary, the feeling was mutual. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, safety
Rashad Johnson and cornerback Jerraud Powers believe a nickname must come organically.
Peterson hoped to get Jon Gruden as the color analyst for Monday Night Football because of his propensity to conjure up monikers that stick. Chris Berman will do the opener, so maybe he will come up with something.
The key, Powers said, is for the secondary to perform so well that it draws heavy attention.
"Usually if we play good enough as a group, some commentator or someone will throw something out there," Powers said. "We'll just take that and run with it."
Not only is excellence in the secondary a requirement for a nickname, but it will play a crucial role in the Cardinals' fortunes in 2014.
The defense has been hit hard by defections from a front seven that dominated last season. The Cardinals were the best in the NFL at stopping the run behind their stout defensive line, while John Abraham, Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington all excelled at linebacker.
But between free agency (Dansby), a year-long suspension (Washington) and a season-ending knee injury (defensive tackle Darnell Dockett), the group has taken its lumps. The defensive backs were good last year – the Cardinals were fifth best in the NFL at pass defense, according to Football Outsiders' weighted efficiency ratings – and may need to turn it up another notch to make up for the losses.
"You lost three critical pieces — Karlos and Daryl and now Dockett," Mathieu said. "That pass rush might not be there this year. We may have to cover a bit longer. That's why Patrick gets paid, that's why we brought in Cromartie, and that's why I've got to step up."
Coach Bruce Arians has also mentioned potential concerns with the pass rush, and it may be the biggest question mark on defense heading
into the season. Abraham is 36 and it's unknown if he can duplicate last year's surprisingly strong output. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles excels at freeing players using blitz packages, but if they don't work, the onus is on the secondary to mitigate the damage.
"We like to pressure guys, so that's not a secret," Peterson said. "We're going to continue blitzing. We're going to continue to pressure the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands a little bit faster. The main goal is to stay plastered to our receivers. So many things can go on. A quarterback can slip out of the pocket or we can miss a sack. Anything like that. If we're not in coverage and a guy ends up going down the field, that can hurt us in the long run."
Peterson is the star with a lucrative new contract, but the secondary is full of both big names and quality depth. Cromartie nabbed 10 interceptions in 2007 and is a three-time Pro Bowler. His addition slides last year's starting cornerback, Powers, into the slot, which could strengthen both spots.
Mathieu starred as a rookie, and is now creeping closer to a return following last year's torn ACL. The Cardinals drafted safety Deone Bucannon in the first round, and while he will begin the season as Jefferson's backup, a prominent role awaits. Johnson will start until Mathieu is healthy and play regularly after that, while cornerback Justin Bethel oozes potential.
"We've got a strong group on paper," Powers said. "It's just a matter of going out and proving it on Sundays and Mondays."
Arians said the Cardinals' defensive philosophy this year will still revolve around stopping the run. By stacking the box, it puts a lot of responsibility on the defensive backs, who will sometimes be left on an island. Out there, one misstep can result in a huge chunk of yardage, something Jefferson knows the secondary must limit.
"They can get past the D-Line, they can get past the linebackers, but they can't get past the back end," Jefferson said. "We've got to be the strength of this defense."
A no fly zone, if you will. Just with a yet-to-be-determined label.
"Once you hashtag something on social media, everybody starts calling you that," Mathieu said. "I wasn't trying to nickname the (secondary). I was just saying nobody's going to pass on us this year. I'm sure we'll get a name."