Defensive lineman Frostee Rucker celebrates another defensive stop by the Cardinals against the Rams.
The Cardinals had one of the best defenses in the NFL as the 2013 season came to a close, but by the time they were arriving in training camp, questions sprung everywhere about keeping that kind of reputation.
Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington were out. At camp, Darnell Dockett, and later John Abraham, got hurt. Tyrann Mathieu was still rehabbing. The players that remained understood the skeptics, but they weren't skeptical themselves. There wasn't any real extra motivation.
"You always want to have confidence in yourself," safety Rashad Johnson said. "When the stories are being written and people are saying we couldn't live up to the team we were last year because of Daryl and Karlos leaving and Dockett getting hurt … I
don't know if I'd say there's a chip on our shoulder. That's a tough question."
Maybe it was the belief. The belief in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The belief in the core of players still there, like Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker and Patrick Peterson and Johnson, or an addition like Antonio Cromartie or emerging starter like Tony Jefferson.
Some names are different but the results have been the same. Only once have the Cards given up more than 20 points. The group takes the ball away – meshing nicely with an offense that doesn't turn it over.
It was easy to assume at times the offense would have to pick up its production this season to make up for defensive losses, but now that starting quarterback Carson Palmer is done, the Cards are right where they never left – a team that will go as far as their defense takes them.
"One thing we really don't get caught up in is what we are supposed to do, stat-wise, what other people are doing in the league," Rucker said. "The main objective here is to win. If we can win dominant, if we can win in the last second, doesn't matter, because at the end of the year, no one cares about that stuff. They want to see the win-loss column.
"We aren't focused on being the '85 Bears. We just want to be the Cardinals."
In nine games the Cardinals have forced 19 turnovers. They have the third-ranked rushing defense. They have been special in
the fourth quarter, helping the team outscore the opposition, 91-34. The unit was buoyed by veteran newcomers Larry Foote at linebacker and Tommy Kelly on the defensive line, both of whom are playing much more than originally anticipated. Confident in what Bowles could put together, there was no concern that Bowles would create something to help with the personnel losses.
So, Johnson said, that might mean four defensive linemen against the Cowboys. Or cornerback Antonio Cromartie rushing the passer some against the Rams. Or rookie safety Deone Bucannon essentially taking Washington's linebacker spot in the nickel package.
Peterson said not everyone on defense could digest what Bowles put in front of them last season. That wasn't a problem this season, another reason to believe there would be no dropoff.
"There is definitely a pride factor, especially when you have those (personnel losses) hanging over our head," Peterson said. "We pretty much had the core of our guys back. We knew what it would take to get the job done."
The Cardinals will need Stanton and the offense to remain effective. The Cards aren't trying to be the '85 Bears and nor are they the 2000 Ravens, who were so dominant defensively they won despite an oft-putrid offense.
"If it's the offense having to carry us and get a late touchdown, like against Philly, or us having to be dominant playing the best 15 minutes of our lives (against the Rams), so be it," Rucker said. "We like having each other's backs."
In this case, the unit would like to have Palmer's back, and help finish what he was part of starting.
"It's a very tough situation for us," Johnson said. "Carson is a leader, but as a defensive unit, this is the opportunity to take another step. We've been good, but now we have the opportunity to be great, to do something special, to carry a lot of the load on our side."