The Cardinals want to have better production in their run defense than they did against Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks.
The height of the Cardinals' run-stopping prowess likely came on Nov. 2 against the Cowboys.
Dallas running back DeMarco Murray had been otherworldly to that point, hitting the 100-yard rushing mark in every game until the Cards showed up at AT&T Stadium and held him to 79 yards on 19 carries in a 28-17 win.
Nose tackle Dan Williams sat in the locker room when it was over, explaining how an elite run-stopping unit succeeds primarily on effort. Sometime recently, the defense seemed to lose that edge. In the past four games, the Cardinals have given up an average of 151 rushing yards per game, nearly 50 more than their season average.
"I don't know what the reason is, why this happened," defensive end Calais Campbell said. "I do know we can make the decision today to end that and go back in and stop the run."
Long gains have been the biggest culprit. In Atlanta, aging running back Steven Jackson became the first opposing player to crack 100
yards against the Cardinals, buoyed by an early 55-yard rumble in which he bullied defenders on his way down to the 1-yard-line.
A week later it was Jamaal Charles, cracking a 63-yard scoring run during a game in which he averaged a sparkling 9.1 yards-per-carry. The capper came Sunday. The Seahawks nearly doubled the previous season high in rushing yards allowed by the Cardinals, carrying the ball 34 times for 267 yards.
To be fair, some of it came on scrambles by quarterback Russell Wilson, but the enduring image was running back Marshawn Lynch bouncing off would-be tacklers for a 79-yard score to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
"When guys make spectacular plays you definitely have to tip your hat to them, and say, 'Hey man, that was a heck of a play,'" safety Rashad Johnson said. "At the same time, we can always do more to get the job done. More guys rallying to the ball, not thinking that the guy is down, things of that nature. We have to make sure we're all giving the full effort on every play and not shy away from the contact when it's there."
Coach Bruce Arians is in a tough spot. The Cardinals have used up all of their padded practices this season, which means the tackling fundamentals can't be properly executed in practice.
"That's the problem with the rules," Arians said. "Once the playoffs start, I believe we're allowed one more padded practice. We'll see how that goes."
Until then, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will continue to use schemes which optimize the defense's chances, but he can't make the
plays for them. Arians lamented several instances where a defender had a free run at Wilson last week but couldn't get him down.
"Tackle, just tackle," Arians said. "When you blitz, don't stop and let the guy get out. We had five times where we had unblocked blitzers come on and either jump up in the air and do exactly what they were told not to do, and not coached to do, instead of running through the upfield shoulder. Russell's going to make you pay. If you give him a chance, he's going to make you pay, and he did."
The Cardinals will face another slithery quarterback on Sunday in the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick. He ran for a 90-yard touchdown last week against the Chargers and Arians said if similar mistakes happen against Kaepernick "it's going to the house."
The 49ers got off to quick start against the Cardinals in Week 3, but were shut out in the second half, which allowed quarterback Drew Stanton rally the team to victory.
Rookie Logan Thomas will start under center this time, which puts more of an onus on the defense. It didn't come close to the dominant effort needed against the Seahawks, and since any hope of a first-round bye comes with a victory in San Francisco, the run defense must stiffen and the big plays must be eliminated.
"We knew what we did (wrong against the Seahawks)," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "We knew we didn't make enough plays. For the caliber of players we have on this defense to give up 600 (total) yards, that was embarrassing – on national television. We know we have to get back to what got us here."