The Cardinals' defense will try to repeat their 2013 success.
The man whose players label him "guru" and "mastermind" stood calmly on the grass at University of Phoenix Stadium, watching the defense at practice.
Todd Bowles is always cerebral --his mental capacity hides under little outward emotion -- and true to his nature, the Cardinals' defensive coordinator deflects credit for last year's success.
"I've got a lot to learn as a coordinator," Bowles said.
Coach Bruce Arians has no such restraint. While he rooted hard for Bowles to land a head coaching gig with a different NFL team this offseason, selfishly, Arians was ecstatic to bring him back for a second season. Bowles interviewed with
both the Vikings and Browns for their head coaching jobs.
"I was pulling for Todd, but on the same side, thank God," Arians said.
With Bowles at the helm, the Cardinals finished sixth in total defense in 2013, and by advanced metrics, were even better. According to Football Outsiders' weighted evaluation -- which takes each play and compares it to the league-average –they had the second-best defense in the NFL at the end of 2013, behind only the Seahawks.
Much of it had to do with the players on the field, but a significant portion also came from Bowles' ability to set them up for success. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals had 82 unblocked pressures of the quarterback in 2013, more than any other NFL team. Those free runs – almost entirely scheme-generated -- resulted in 12 sacks, 31 hits and 39 hurries.
"I'm going to give him most of the credit because he does such a good job of putting guys in position to be successful and not ask them to do things they can't do or be good at," Arians said. "Each week, tweak it a little bit and spread the wealth around all the guys. He does a great job of matching his players up to what they can do."
As full pads went on for the first time Monday, questions persist as to whether the Cardinals can duplicate those results. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is in Cleveland, linebacker Daryl Washington is suspended for the season and safety Tyrann Mathieu could miss multiple games while recovering from a torn ACL.
The maestro is back, but does he have enough pieces of the orchestra?
"Obviously we had two good football players and you've got to have the players to win," Bowles said. "We have different types of players and different ways they play, (but) there are different ways to skin a cat."
Bowles said that even if the personnel didn't change, each year is different. In some respects, the defense may have
been due for a natural regression. Dansby, 32, set a career-high in tackles (114), pass deflections (19) and interceptions (4), returning two of the picks for touchdowns to double his career total. Linebacker John Abraham, 36, had 11½ sacks and four forced fumbles over the last 10 weeks. Only the Rams' Robert Quinn had more sacks over that span.
Since players generally peak in their mid-to-late 20s, the Cardinals may have received close to maximum output from those two in 2013. But even if Dansby didn't repeat his 2013 season, he still would have been a key piece. Additionally, Washington is one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.
The Cardinals defense understands what it lost, but does not see any reason for a step back.
"Those are two star football players, and you can't take anything away from them," defensive end Frostee Rucker said. "Everyone here, not to sound wrong, but, they're tired of hearing about that. It's almost an excuse now. We don't have any excuses going forward. I know guys are going to step up, guys are going to make plays, and before you know it, we're going to be talking about them and not the others."
This is where Bowles can help. With many new faces, the defensive looks figure to be different, but there is complete confidence in his philosophies.
"He knows how to use his talent," said linebacker Kevin Minter, who is expected to replace Dansby in the starting lineup. "He's a guru. Last year, a lot of the ways we won is because he was out-scheming people."
Rucker marvels at the ingenuity Bowles brings each week during the season. From a schematic standpoint, Rucker said only Vikings coach Mike Zimmer – who coached Rucker in Cincinnati -- compares with Bowles.
"It's a heck of an experience to see him really put a mastermind game plan together and attack people," Rucker said.
Despite the departures, the talent level is high defensively. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, Abraham and Mathieu still form a solid nucleus, and the additions of cornerback Antonio Cromartie and first-round pick Deone Bucannon, a hard-hitting strong safety, will bolster the unit.
Larry Foote, 34, has been running beside Minter with the starters, and he will get the first opportunity to fill Washington's shoes. In all likelihood, Minter and Foote won't match the production of Washington and Dansby, but safety Rashad Johnson believes that if the entire defense works together, it can make up for those losses.
"Everyone wants to talk about the positions that we lost and the guys we lost, but in reality, the NFL is full of a bunch of talented players and guys that can play," Johnson said. "If not, they couldn't be here. It's all about opportunity, and when you get that opportunity, how you take advantage of it.
"Kevin Minter is a great player. I have supreme confidence in him that he's going to step right in, and we're not going to lose anything. I think we're going to be just as solid. At the end of the day, he doesn't have to make every play. He has 10 other guys around him who are going to have to play their role and make sure they're doing their job. If everybody takes care of their business, we'll be just fine."