Cardinals defensive tackle Frostee Rucker (middle) and linebacker Markus Golden harass Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – On the fourth play of the Cardinals' 42-17 victory on Sunday, pocket pressure by linebacker Alex Okafor forced Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to scramble left.
Stafford had an open receiver, but throwing across his body while on the run proved too difficult. The pass sailed five yards short of its target, landing in the waiting hands of safety Rashad Johnson.
In the black-and-white world of sack counts, the Cardinals' total did not change. But it's a perfect illustration as to why coach Bruce Arians is just fine with a low sack number, provided the defense makes an opposing quarterback uncomfortable.
"Well, if you sack him you can't get interceptions," Arians said. "But if you move him off the spot and then he throws a bad ball, interceptions are better."
Every team would love to pile up gobs of sacks, but the Cardinals are proving they can be effective without doing so. Last season, they finished tied for 24th in the NFL with 35 sacks and fifth in scoring defense by allowing 18.7 points per game.
Through five games, they are tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with eight and are on pace for only 26 by the end of the regular season. Even so, the Cardinals are only allowing 18 points per game, again tied for fifth in the NFL.
"A sack is important when they're completing third downs and moving the ball down the field," defensive tackle Calais Campbell said. "A sack changes the game, especially on third down, because it gets us off the field. But we're doing well where we're forcing three-and-out a lot of the time, or we're getting turnovers. Those are huge plays that also take away from our ability to get sacks. I'll take the turnovers any day over a sack."
The Cardinals are tied for second in the NFL in takeaways with 13, including a league-best 11 interceptions. Johnson's other pick against the Lions also had help from pressure. Linebacker Markus Golden found an opening up the middle and beelined toward Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky, likely affecting him as the pass sailed high.
"I can read the quarterback and tell when he's flustered and when he's trying to flush out, or if his eyes are set on getting rid of the ball," Johnson said. "You can definitely tell when he's feeling the pressure or not feeling the pressure. They just have a different demeanor about them."
The Cardinals lost Okafor, last year's team-leader in sacks, to a calf injury on Sunday, and he could miss up to a month. They signed seven-time Pro Bowler Dwight Freeney -- one of the more prolific sack machines in NFL history -- on Monday, although it remains to be seen if he can be an impact piece at age 35.
Freeney said one thing going for him is the elite secondary. So far, the pass-rush has helped force ill-advised throws and the defensive backs have taken advantage. If quarterbacks think twice about throwing into coverage moving forward, sacks become more prevalent.
"We have a very gifted back end," Freeney said. "A back end I haven't had, I don't think ever. When you get numbers and you get sacks and everything is going good, everything has to work together."
The Cardinals defense has been terrific despite the lower sack total because it doesn't seem to have a glaring weakness. While the Rams ran the ball well in the Cardinals' only loss of the season, the other four opponents have been stuck in mud. When passes aren't getting picked off, they are not being completed at a very successful rate.
Defensive tackle Frostee Rucker is more interested in retaining that balance than sacrificing it for sacks.
"More times than not, when you're really strong in certain situations you're really weak in others," Rucker said. "We like to be consistent in all of ours. You can be great in pass defense and give up 200 yards rushing every game. Are you beating your chest on that? No. You want to be even across the board, and that's where we're at."
The Cardinals' front won't complain if a six-sack game rains down in the next few weeks, but it still focuses on the bigger picture. Thus far, that is a 4-1 record, a league-leading point differential and one of the most disruptive defenses in the NFL.
"I think everyone wants to see the number higher, but at the end of the day, (sack) numbers don't mean anything," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. "It's (about) results."
Past images of the Cardinals facing off against this week's opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers