Safety Rashad Johnson (26) runs an interception back Sunday with cornerback Jerraud Powers (25) helping to run interference.
Patrick Peterson is the highest-paid NFL cornerback and Antonio Cromartie has long been a marquee defensive back. Deone Bucannon is a first-round draft pick and Tyrann Mathieu is the Honey Badger.
But ask Cardinals' coach Bruce Arians about his defensive MVPs, and those he picks out of the secondary are none of those guys.
It wasn't hard to notice Jerraud Powers or Rashad Johnson against the Redskins Sunday, not after Powers got his team-leading third
interception of the season and Johnson had a pair of picks, including a game-clinching touchdown return. Arians, however, didn't need turnovers to show him what the two mean.
"Two very, very smart players," Arians said. "They dissect plays by formation, they see things, they study a ton of tape, they communicate well. When a guy's smart, it's easy to communicate, because he believes in what he's saying. That's what they're always around the ball. They're always going to be there. They're going to make their plays."
Johnson and Powers are the players that are always in danger of being replaced as starters. Johnson lost his spot to Mathieu last year; the signing of Cromartie pushed Powers out of the starting lineup.
The two, though, never were going to go away. Powers stepped into the nickel role Mathieu had played before his injury. Johnson has been the safety constant in the secondary transition to youth, even with the additions of Mathieu and Bucannon.
"Rashad and me, those are two guys he knows for sure will know the game plan," Powers said. "You need those type of guys on
defense. Some people might have the physical attributes, but they might not have the mental part of it all the way down."
Johnson was the one free agent new GM Steve Keim wanted to extend as he and Arians wanted to overhaul the roster last season. Powers believes Arians targeted him as a free agent because of his "smarts and accountability and things of that nature."
Against Washington, Mathieu was inserted back into a major role, taking playing time for strong safety Tony Jefferson. As Mathieu gets healthier, he may or may not push Johnson or Powers out of some snaps (although with Bucannon being used a lot in the absence of suspended linebacker Daryl Washington, that's one secondary member whose work in the backfield will likely be delayed until next season).
Whatever is asked of Johnson or Powers, though, they say they are willing to do. Their intelligence goes beyond the field, understandinghow the roster makeup can impact their use.
"There are first-round draft picks at safety, and with Patrick, all those guys deserve all the praises they get," Johnson said. "For me, I try to stick to my lane and my role."
That role, and that of Powers, is needed on a defense fighting for stability in the face of injuries.
"You're happy to give game balls to those types of guys," Arians said.