Cardinals star Chandler Jones played outside linebacker last season but would be fine moving to defensive end if needed.
Chandler Jones is in Orlando for the Pro Bowl this week, and he’s been hearing speculation about a possible scheme change for the Cardinals.
New coach Steve Wilks found success running a 4-3 base alignment as the defensive coordinator for the Panthers last season. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have employed a 3-4 for more than a decade, through the coaching stints of both Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians.
In his introductory press conference on Tuesday, Wilks stressed he wouldn’t be making widespread changes to the defense, but didn’t definitively say which scheme he will use.
For a player like Jones, who is coming off a season in which he led the NFL with 17 sacks, it would be natural to resist a possible position switch. But the Cardinals’ star, who would move from outside linebacker to defensive end in a 4-3, said he’s happy to play either spot.
“I don’t prefer either/or,” said Jones, who began his NFL career as a defensive end with the Patriots. “As long as I can get after the quarterback, that’s what I’m excited about.”
Wilks said his decisions will be affected by the personnel on hand. The Cardinals have several key playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, including Jones, fellow outside linebacker Markus Golden, cornerback Patrick Peterson, money linebacker Deone Bucannon and safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker.
The Cardinals have boasted one of the best defenses in the NFL for several years, which is why Wilks prefers to tweak rather than renovate.
“We’re not going to change too much,” Wilks said. “If it’s not broke, don’t worry about trying to fix it.”
General Manager Steve Keim believes the debate between the 4-3 and 3-4 is overblown, anyway. He points out that the Cardinals use their nickel defensive package more than their base defense, which adds a fifth defensive back and takes away someone from the front seven.
The team has also regularly used fronts with four down linemen in past years, even though the defense was a 3-4. There is a hybrid nature to the NFL now, stuffed with subpackages, making the choice of the base scheme less important than it had been previously.
“(Wilks) knows defensive football,” Keim said. “As he said earlier, when you talk about a 4-3, a 3-4 -- he’s going to put guys in position to succeed.”
Veteran safety Antoine Bethea has played in various schemes throughout his career and isn’t worried about a potential switch.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” he said. “A 3-4 or 4-3, defense is defense. Plays are plays. It’s about the players going out there and executing whatever it is you’re in. It’ll be up to them, looking at the roster on the defensive side, what they feel best fits us to go out there and perform the best. From there, it’s up to the players to hone in on whatever we need to hone in on, and go out there and perform.”
Wilks was known for his aggressiveness in Carolina, as he blitzed at the second-highest rate in the NFL a season ago. That mirrors what the Cardinals have done in recent years, but he said that philosophy is also malleable.
“I don’t have a scheme, I have a system,” Wilks said. “And when you have a system, you’re willing to adapt to the personnel that you have, not only in that particular week, but throughout the whole year. I think right now, when you look at some of the guys up front, particularly Chandler, for one, we’ve got great pass rushers, like you mentioned. I don’t foresee trying to do a lot. I mean, if you can get there with four, we’re not going to pressure a lot, but I think it’s all based off week-to-week and what the offense is trying to give you from a scheme standpoint.”
Keim spoke of the reality that superior players will beat any scheme. Wilks will bring his perspective defensively and make the changes he sees fit, but he can only do so much.
Bethea summed it up when asked about the possibility of sticking with a blitz-heavy philosophy.
“I like it when it works, you know what I’m saying?” Bethea said. “If you blitz and it gets home, it works. If you blitz and leave guys out to dry … at the end of the day, that’s with anything. If it works, of course I like it. If it doesn’t, then throw it out. With him being a DC, he knows that as well. At the end of the day, it’s all about the players going out there and executing whatever the coaches decide for us to do.”