Linebackers Larry Foote (on ground) and Alex Okafor (57) go after Redskins running back Alfred Morris. The Cardinals have the top-ranked run defense in the NFL.
As LeSean McCoy began watching tape of the Cardinals earlier this week, he was baffled.
In Week 12 last year, the Eagles' star running back was held 21 yards under his season average by Arizona's tough run defense, which led the NFL in that category at the end of the year. To him, that made sense.
The Cardinals had standout defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett up front, with athletic linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby on the second level.
This year, though, has been much different. Washington, Dansby and Dockett haven't taken a snap for the Cardinals – and won't – while Campbell has missed the past two games with a knee injury.
For 36 defensive plays against Oakland on Sunday, defensive tackle Dan Williams was the only member of last year's starting front seven to see
the field. On the other 15, it was an entirely new group made up of low-cost veterans and inexperienced youngsters.
Yet despite the heavy turnover and decrease in star-power, the Cardinals held the Raiders to 56 rushing yards, and have again moved atop the rush defense chart, giving up a paltry 72.5 yards per game.
"That's the crazy thing I've been wondering," said McCoy, when asked how the Cardinals are keeping this up. "I think every player on that defense plays together, whereas sometimes where guys want to make the plays and get all the attention. They play as a team."
When coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles were hired in January of 2013, they inherited a defense which was 30th, 21st and 28th against the run the previous three years, never allowing less than an average of 124.1 yards per game in any of those seasons.
In 2012, the Cardinals were sixth in team defense, according to Pro Football Focus, but it came about by limiting the pass and amassing 22 interceptions.
On one of his first days, Bowles wrote the rush ranking on a white board and said it had to change, even though the previous year's team found success. It's a philosophy he and Arians have held for decades.
"That goes way back to like 1983," Arians said. "We think a lot alike in that phase."
Bowles said it was drilled into him while playing safety for Arians at Temple.
"Every time we gave up a run he had a problem," Bowles said. "He's an aggressive offensive coach and he likes an aggressive defense. No matter how much the game changes it comes back to trying to stop the run. If they become a running and a passing team you've got a lot of problems. You try to take away one and you try to work on taking away the other as you go."
Bowles kept the same 3-4 defensive alignment the team used under former defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but flipped it from a two-gap, occupy-the-blocks defense to a more aggressive one-gap front.
In Bowles' scheme, the defensive linemen have one lane to attack and can do so immediately following the snap as opposed to reading the
offensive linemen. The drawback can be open cut-back lanes when the players push too far upfield, but the Cardinals have done a masterful job of retaining their gap responsibility while still being aggressive.
The Cardinals are the only team in the NFL which hasn't allowed an opponent to surpass 100 yards rushing. In the past 25 games, only 49ers running back Frank Gore (25 carries, 101 yards on Oct. 13, 2013) has gone over 100 yards individually.
Safety Rashad Johnson said run defense is less about personnel and more about fundamentals, which is why the Cardinals have been so successful.
"It's 11 guys," Johnson said, "and as long as you're fitting your gaps and doing your job, you can stop the run."
There's been a striking amount of balance on defense. No player has more than 40 tackles, and the defensive linemen are rotated with little noticeable impact. Throughout his tenure, Arians has breathlessly stressed the importance of depth.
"He always tells guys who are on the bench, 'You're one play away from being on the field, and actually, you're the MVP of the team, because if the guy in front of you goes down, you have to step in, and I'm not expecting a dropoff,'" Williams said. "Coach B.A. expects a lot out of his players, and everybody feeds into that."
Campbell practiced on a limited basis Thursday, and would be a huge addition if he can return Sunday against the Eagles. If not, the defensive line will again be a mishmash of pieces. Williams is a former first-round pick, but Frostee Rucker was supposed to only serve as reserve depth. Tommy Kelly was cut by the Patriots in the preseason and picked up by the Cardinals 12 days before the first game.
Ed Stinson and Kareem Martin were rookies General Manager Steve Keim liked in the draft, but a pair expected to mostly watch and learn this year. Alameda Ta'amu was a waiver-wire pickup before last season.
"If you look around here, except for the draft picks, we came from everywhere else, and we're a bunch of castaways, really," Rucker said. "Someone didn't want us."
The Cardinals will rely on that group to slow down two of the more dynamic running backs in the NFL these next two weeks. First up is McCoy, who led the league with 1,607 rushing yards in 2013 and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. His numbers are down this year in part because of injuries to the Philadelphia offensive line, but he had 22 carries for 149 yards last time out against the Giants and is still one of the league's premier runners.
Then it's on to Dallas, where DeMarco Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards in an NFL-record seven straight games, and is on pace to finish with more than 2,000.
Arians knows the challenge ahead, but during the week he's still been matter-of-fact. The Cardinals will stop the run and force opponents to pass. That's the defensive identity, and it won't change on the basis of a star running back.
"They were very direct in what we wanted to do," Rucker said. "They had a plan. I think we were dead last against the run before, and that had to stop. People had excuses. People thought their wrongs were right before. Bruce and coach Bowles have done a great job of finding that 'It' in what we need to do. If it's this or that, they found what we needed to do and they harped on it. And it's been working for us."