Young pass rushers Cyril Obiozor (left), O'Brien Schofield (50) and Sam Acho discuss the finer points of getting to the quarterback at a recent practice.
FLAGSTAFF – Kevin Kolb's first introduction to 11-on-11 in practice was a flood of defensive bodies invading the backfield.
The quarterback scrambled around, as did backup John Skelton during his reps that day, until finally safety Adrian Wilson bellowed "Don't know if y'all know, but we're bringing pressure."
From the day new defensive coordinator Ray Horton was hired and introduced himself by telling the world the Cards' first defensive play would be a blitz, the idea of the pass rush and pressuring the quarterback has been at the forefront.
The Cardinals did not do well in that area last season, just one of many areas that didn't work in 2010. Team sack leader Calais Campbell only had six. Linebacker Joey Porter, brought in ostensibly to provide pressure, had just five in a self-admittedly poor season. Darnell Dockett saw his sack total drop to five from nine the season before.
In came Horton to replace Bill Davis, and the change is evident.
"It doesn't matter who is starting, just that when guys are out there we get pressure on the quarterback," linebacker O'Brien Schofield said. "We run the same defense as the Steelers and you look at how crucial it is for them when they get the pass rush from James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley.
"We have to, I won't say mimic, but bring the same intensity to the pass rush. If we do that, we have a great secondary and we will be able to get some things done."
The Cardinals don't have the same personnel as the Steelers. Harrison and Woodley are proven commodities at the position most important to the scheme – "If you are a pass rusher, you have to love this system," said Porter, who played it in Pittsburgh – while the Cards are searching for that guy.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he thought the pass rush pressure was decent in the preseason opener in Oakland. There were a few times when the coverage drops were poor, he said, allowing receivers to get underneath the defenders so the Raiders quarterbacks could have quick and easy throws. Fix that, Whisenhunt said, and the Cards would have reached the QB more often.
Regardless, the Cards are going to go after the quarterback hard. Clearly, the idea many times is simply to blitz so hard the opposing QB will have a difficult time reacting.
"My job is to find ways to do it," Horton said. "I have to find who does what best. If that means this guy or that guy, it's a different team (than the Steelers), but we will be able to do it."
The Cards are pinning many hopes on Schofield, the 2010 fourth-round pick who transitioned from college defensive end. Schofield wasn't even supposed to play last year after blowing out his knee in a Senior Bowl practice in January of 2010, but he did end up in 10 games, notching two sacks in limited time.
He's healthy now, although far from a polished product.
"I want to get better in coverage, because for me pass rush is a given. That's why I'm here,"
Schofield said. "They will see (who I am) as the season goes on. I want to be as consistent as I can be. I will do my best not to be up and down. They will know me as a hard worker, even if I don't get a sack, if it's 10 tackles, a pass breakup, whatever I can do to help this defense."
The sacks and quarterback hurries are going to be Schofield's main job, however. Horton praised the early showing from rookie Sam Acho, another guy moving from college defensive end to linebacker. With Porter and fellow starter Clark Haggans older and near the end of their careers, the Cards must infuse the new blood at outside linebacker.
Last year, Schofield said the issues came with depth. Between the loss of Cody Brown – a 2009 second-round pick who turned out to be a bust – was released, Schofield's rehab and a foot injury to Will Davis, Porter and Haggans ended up playing much too much.
"You can't blame those guys and expect them to give 100 percent when they play every snap, thinking they won't be tired," Schofield said. "Pass rush takes a lot out of you because you've got to give everything you've got."
It won't just be about the outside linebackers, of course. The blitzing will come from everywhere, which should give players like Wilson (assuming he is able to play), cornerback Patrick Peterson and inside linebackers Daryl Washington and Stewart Bradley, for instance, shots at the quarterback.
However it's done, the urgency to create that urgency has never been greater. The defense – and in many ways, the Cards' hope for success this season – relies on it.
"I know schematically it works," Horton said. "We just have to get that pressure."