When the Cardinals switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense under new coach Steve Wilks last offseason, the players downplayed its potential effects.
Sixteen games later, defensive end Markus Golden admits there may have been an issue.
“That’s what the results say,” Golden said. “You can’t look past that. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. It was hard for a couple guys – not just me, but everybody – because everybody is learning a different job and different assignments.”
The Cardinals were in the top six in total defense each of the past three seasons but dropped to No. 20 in 2018, with run stopping the glaring weakness. The Cardinals’ offensive struggles this year were not unforeseen, but the step back defensively was a surprise.
The unit boasted many players who had excelled in the past but could not repeat the same success. Linebacker Deone Bucannon was the most high-profile, as he spent the year yo-yoing between the field and the bench.
General Manager Steve Keim has spent several high draft picks on hybrid players like Bucannon, linebacker Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker. While Baker played well, the other two did not flourish in Wilks’ scheme.
“I think that at the end of the day, you have to cater to your defensive strengths and put your personnel in the right position to succeed,” Keim said.
Linebacker Josh Bynes admitted there was a lack of cohesiveness on defense, but didn’t want to pin all of the struggles on the system.
“It’s an easy excuse to say that now, especially with the issues we had stopping the run this year on defense,” Bynes said. “But I just think we have to do what we can do better as players as well. How to get ourselves better prepared for the games, and then when something happens in the game, not let it get to us, in a sense. The other guys on the field get paid, too, and we have to live with the punches. Like, ‘OK, let’s go. Next play.’”
The Cardinals will have their third defensive coordinator in three years in 2019, and there will again be a focus on the scheme. Bynes worries about some of the younger players who will face another transition.
“I’m not going to lie,” Bynes said. “I’m not going to say it’s easy. It’s going to be tough for them. I played in the same system my first six seasons in the league. It was good to know a defense. You become comfortable. A young guy like Haas (Reddick), he’s going into his third defense in three years, possibly. It’s a tough situation.”
Even if the offense is upgraded this offseason, the defense still figures to be the team’s strength in 2019. The group will need to play better for a turnaround to happen. It’s unknown if that quest will start from the 3-4 or the 4-3.
“Of course you’re going to feel like (the 3-4 works better),” Golden said. “That’s what we were used to. Guys were running around and making plays in the 3-4. But at the same time, you had games in the 4-3 where we dominated, and you felt like, ‘I’m glad we’re in a 4-3.’ I don’t care what the scheme is. It’s still about the players.”
Cardinals' 2018 Sack Leaders
Images of the players who registered sacks in 2018