Cardinals cornerback Antoine Cason (20) celebrates in touchdown in Tennessee with safety Yeremiah Bell (37), defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Jerraud Powers (25).
As training camp approached, Jerraud Powers did the math.
He was one of four defensive backs – alongside Yeremiah Bell, Antoine Cason and Javier Arenas -- brought in by the Cardinals with considerable NFL starting experience. The team's holdovers from 2012 included star cornerback Patrick Peterson and part-time starting safety Rashad Johnson. Promising rookie Tyrann Mathieu was a third-round draft pick.
The Cardinals had seven players capable of filling the four secondary spots.
"All of us on one team?" Powers said. "As soon as I saw that on paper, I knew we had a strong group."
Those players were shoo-ins to make the roster, but even the competition behind them was fierce. Tony Jefferson was an undrafted free
agent out of Oklahoma who received a training camp invitation. He accepted, but knew it wouldn't be easy to secure a spot.
"When I came in I was looking at the depth," Jefferson said. "I'm the young guy, so I see them. They've been ballin' on other teams, and here, they're backups."
That didn't deter him. The competition made Jefferson – and everyone – work harder. As the preseason progressed, it was a tough task for coach Bruce Arians to trim down his list of defensive backs, which included at the time former Cowboys backup Bryan McCann and 2012 third-round pick Jamell Fleming.
"Going into the season, I knew we were going to cut some really good corners and safeties," Arians said. "The competition in training camp in those spots was as good as anywhere I've ever been in the secondary."
Once the year began, the group lived up to its billing. The Cardinals have intercepted 19 passes this year, the fifth-highest mark in the NFL. Peterson is a Pro Bowl candidate and almost single-handedly kept the Cardinals from losing to Tampa Bay in Week 4 when he corralled two late interceptions. Mathieu became an impact player quickly.
Now, though, that decorated depth will be tested.
On Dec. 8, Mathieu tore ligaments in his knee, ending his season. In Sunday's overtime win against the Titans, Johnson – who replaced Mathieu in the starting lineup -- had his ankle rolled while making a tackle, and is doubtful to play against the Seahawks. Jefferson would replace him in the starting lineup.
Some teams would be nervous about the situation, but Johnson said the competitiveness has raised the overall standard in the secondary.
"In this business, it's about competition and the way that you perform," he said. "If you've got guys that are all equally skilled players, and they've spent time in this league, it makes you want to raise your game even more. You want to be the guy on the field."
Cason was thrown into the fray against the Titans and answered the call. Even though he'd been a starter for the past three seasons in San Diego, Cason's main role this year was special teams. He stepped in as the nickel cornerback and grabbed two interceptions and a fumble. He returned the first pick for a touchdown, and the second set up a game-winning field goal by Jay Feely in overtime.
Despite the lack of playing time up to that point, Cason said the important thing was to be ready when called upon.
"I don't want to be that guy out there who's not doing his job," he said.
It wasn't all sunshine for the defensive backs. Titans' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 36-of-58 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns, as Tennessee rallied from a 17-point hole in the final 3:12 to force overtime. This week could be an even bigger test. Russell Wilson is one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL, and the Seahawks have never lost at home (14-0) under his guidance.
Despite relatively good health in the secondary for much of the season, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles knew this challenge would surface eventually.
"I've never finished the season with four starting DBs that went all the way through," he said. "You better teach your younger guys and they better be ready to play."
Jefferson could be a big key. He played in overtime of the Titans game and forced the interception by hitting Fitzpatrick on a blitz.
"He's been a playmaker everywhere he's been," Arians said. "Every time he's had an opportunity with us, he's made plays. He jumped in the other night and basically won the game because he forced the interception."
When the Cardinals lost three linebackers to season-ending injuries in Week 3 against the Saints, Matt Shaughnessy and John Abraham stepped up and the unit didn't miss a beat. The reserve defensive backs believe they will do the same, and Cason said the proof will be evident on Sunday.
"We can talk about it until we're blue in the face, but if the depth doesn't make plays, then it's all for naught," he said. "Step in, make plays. Then, yeah, let it be known."