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Cardinals Defense A Constant Amid Change

Talented group expects to be among league's best again

LB Deone Bucannon (20) and his fellow defensive starters prepare for a snap at Monday's training camp practice
LB Deone Bucannon (20) and his fellow defensive starters prepare for a snap at Monday's training camp practice

Like any first-year coach, Steve Wilks sat down to watch tape of his personnel after getting the Cardinals job in January.

When clips of his new defense hit the screen, Wilks liked what he saw.

"We have some talent on that side of the ball," he said.

The Cardinals' offense is almost a complete unknown heading into 2018, with a new quarterback, new skill pieces and a new philosophy. For that reason, the defense may be counted on to do some heavy lifting early, and it seems to have the talent to deliver.

Wilks noted the presence of star pass-rusher Chandler Jones -- the reigning NFL sack king – as well as the versatility of players like linebacker Deone Bucannon and safety Budda Baker. The unit also boasts cornerback Patrick Peterson, safety Antoine Bethea, linebacker Haason Reddick, defensive end Markus Golden, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, defensive tackle Corey Peters and recently-added safety Tre Boston, among others.

The Cardinals finished 19th in points allowed last year at 22.6 per game, but that doesn't tell the true story. The defense allowed 4.9 yards per play, which was fourth in the NFL, and was rated as the fourth-best defense by Pro Football Reference's Expected Points Added metric, behind the Jaguars, Vikings and Ravens.

The Cardinals lost key defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu, Tramon Williams and Tyvon Branch, but return eight starters.

"We're stacked right now," Reddick said. "We've got some real dogs at every position across the board. I can't wait to get out there and go huntin' with these guys. It's exciting. When you look at the roster and you look at the film and see what you have, you just can't wait to line up across from somebody in a different-colored jersey and see what happens."

Wilks switched the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in the offseason and was encouraged with the way the players adapted, calling it a "seamless" transition. He likes that it allows Jones to focus on rushing the passer exclusively instead of also dropping into coverage, and Peterson has been vocal with his approval of the change.

"It fits our skillset," Peterson said. "I believe guys are now in position to flourish even more than they did in the previous system."

National pundits may not consider the Cardinals a defensive powerhouse, but they have been in the top-4 in yards per play allowed each of the past two seasons and were No. 9 in 2015. There are some keys to staying there, which include the emergence of Jamar Taylor – or someone else – as a competent No. 2 cornerback, and the evolution of Reddick and Nkemdiche from elite athletes to productive assets.

The NFC West boasts three quarterbacks – Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff – with high-end potential, and the out-of-division slate includes games against Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan. It's not an easy schedule, but the defense roughed up some talented quarterbacks down the stretch in 2017 and has gaudy expectations this year.

"Be a top-five defense," Bethea said. "Be top-5 turnover-wise. That's realistic. With the way Chandler played last year, the way front played last year, and with the way we ended the season, the defense can build on that. We can be a dominant defense."

Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb will bring some wrinkles to the defense, and they have inherited the requisite talent to execute those ideas.

"The things we can do with these guys," Wilks said, "it's exciting."

Notable images from the start of Cardinals training camp

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