The Cardinals have given up just 14 second-half points in their five victories this season.
In the cat-and-mouse game of the NFL, the Cardinals' second-half defense resembles a fearsome feline.
Coaches in the league are constantly searching for ways to outwit the competition, and Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has proven adept at putting his players in position to succeed. In four of the Cardinals' five wins this season, they've trailed at the half. The defense has given up just seven total points after intermission in those games, allowing the offense to rally for the victory.
"When (the opponent) tweaks some things going into halftime you try to tweak some things," Bowles said. "You say, 'OK, this is how they're going to try to attack us because we're doing this, so we'll try to do that.' And we come back out and everybody's focused and has a good understanding. The guys do a good job of executing their game plan."
The defense didn't allow a second-half point to the Lions, Buccaneers or Panthers in the team's first three victories, and
it's been nearly as good in the two recent wins.
The only touchdown Atlanta mustered on Oct. 27 came with 4:38 remaining in a game Arizona led 27-6. Last week, the Cardinals held Houston to zero net yards in the third quarter, and the Texans' lone second-half score came on a drive that began on the Arizona 5-yard line following a Rashard Mendenhall fumble.
"(We're) not really changing what we're doing, just doing it better," coach Bruce Arians said. "A lot of times it has to do with third down and playing (first-down) sticks and having the stick awareness a little bit better than we're doing in the first half. Overall, it's adjustments – this is where we're heading in the second half both offensively and defensively."
Bowles isn't taking much of the credit. He said the only time he ever feels truly comfortable is "when the game's over." The Cardinals make changes at halftime, but Bowles said much of the success is due to the players winning individual battles.
"There're certain plays you can take advantage of, but there's a lot of plays where you just have to play football," he said.
Once Arizona takes a second-half lead, the defense really tends to find its groove.
Bowles has been aggressive all season with blitzes, and he can ratchet it up a few notches once the other team begins to rely on the pass. The pressure often leads to big plays.
"When we take a lead in the second half, teams are going to come out and try to throw the ball," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "As defensive backs we're licking our chops hoping the quarterback gives us an opportunity to make a play."
Despite the second-half success, some defensive players flipped the conversation and focused on the unit's slower starts. The team has allowed 14 first-half points or more in five of the nine games, including 17 last week to Houston.
"I'd rather us start early than have to make adjustments in the second half," linebacker Daryl Washington said. "I thought during that (Texans) game we came out fast. We got a little bit conservative in the second quarter and in the second half just turned it on. This game, I think we need to start fast, come out more aggressive, stay aggressive, and then finish aggressive. That would be the No. 1 emphasis going into the game."
Defensive end Frostee Rucker said opposing teams generally script their first 15 offensive plays. Once that runs its course, the Cardinals defense has a better feel for what's coming.
"By the time we make our adjustments, that's when we clamp down on what's really going on," Rucker said.
There isn't enough time at the half for wholesale changes, but small clarifications allow the defensive players to clear their minds. Once that happens, they can react quicker and have a bigger impact.
And as five opponents have found out, the Cardinals defense is tough to handle once it gets rolling.
"I think the main thing is everybody communicating, everybody being on the same page," Mathieu said. "When you get that done at halftime, we're able to go out there after halftime and just play fast."