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Safety First With Johnson, Sanders

Defensive back duo step in to get more work in place of Wilson


Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson runs off te field after making an interception last weekend in Atlanta.

On the first play of last weekend's game, the Cardinals sent out its nickel defensive package to defend the potency of Matt Ryan's arm.

Rashad Johnson trotted out to play strong safety instead of Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson for the first time this season. For the two weeks leading up to last weekend's game, coach Ken Whisenhunt warned that changes were coming. But the coach didn't drop any public hints as to the who, what, where, when and why of the changes.

Johnson was ready.

The fourth-year safety took one glance at Atlanta receiver Roddy White lining up in the slot, instead of out wide, and knew it meant one thing: White was Ryan's target on that play. Sure enough, Ryan rifled a pass in White's direction. The ball ricocheted off White's fingers and landed in Johnson's hands.

"Just sometimes how it goes," Johnson said. "The ball just bounces to you and comes to you. You just make the plays that come to you. That's just football. You don't have to press too much. You don't have to overthink it. When an opportunity comes you just make the plays. Most of it is just running to the ball."

Johnson wasn't alone is filling Wilson's shoes. Safety James Sanders was equally as ready to share those duties. In Week 3, the two combined for one of the most dominating performances by the secondary this season when Sanders returned a fumble 93 yards for a touchdown.

The chemistry Johnson and Sanders have built as close friends off the field was again apparent Sunday. But as well as they wanted to play for themselves and each other, Johnson and Sanders understood they weren't going to replace Wilson.

"Anytime you got to come in and take a guy like that off the field, it's expected for you to come in and play at a high level," Sanders aid. "That goes for anyone on the team. When your number's called and you go to go on the field, your job is to produce and stop the defense and help the offense from moving the ball and making plays.

"Those are some big shoes to fill."       

Johnson heeded his own advice again in the third quarter. After linebacker Sam Acho punched the ball away from Falcons running back Jason Snelling, cornerback Greg Toler made a diving save right into Johnson's hands. Right place. Right time.

In just 12 snaps Sunday, Johnson grabbed two turnovers, one-third of the Cardinals' total for the game. In his fourth year, he might not be at the level he predicted coming out of Alabama in 2009, but Johnson was as efficient as he'd ever been.

"There's probably been more of a productive game that just didn't have the turnovers," Johnson said. "Twelve plays and getting two turnovers, that's only a positive and that's only something that's going to help you in the long run. If I can have another 12-play, two-turnover game, then I'm all for it."

Sanders played 17 snaps and Johnson 12 snaps, compared to the 41 for Wilson. Whisenhunt's changes weren't wholesale but they were small enough to show that he was ready to shake up a lineup, regardless of who the stalwart veteran was.

Wilson has declined to discuss the move, referring those who ask to speak to Whisenhunt. But waiting in the wings were two reliable safeties, ready to help where needed and play again at a level the defense had not shown in almost two months.

"I don't see it as two guys trying to replace one guy," Sanders said. "I see it as coaches making a call and us going out there and just executing our responsibility to the best of our abilities.

"When plays present themselves we got to make those plays and continue week to week to try to continue making plays and help the defense as much as possible and help our team win games."


Whisenhunt said Calais Campbell "could" play Sunday in certain situations. "He worked a little bit more today," Whisenhunt said. "We got to see what he can do tomorrow and we'll make that decision probably game day." …

Todd Heap practiced fully for the second straight day but Whisenhunt said he won't decide if the tight end will play until Sunday. "He's certainly a lot closer than he was last week or the week before that," Whisenhunt said. "I think it's a determination of our plan and where we are as far as the 46 active guys on game day." …

Whisenhunt didn't predict how many carries Beanie Wells would get in his return to the field Sunday. "I think you got to get a feel for it," the coach said. "I certainly don't think he's going to get an overload of work."…

Vonnie Holliday's mother made Thanksgiving dinner for a group of players …

Sunday's Cardinals-Rams game sold out, the team announced and will be televised on KSAZ Fox 10. This is the 71st straight sellout at University of Phoenix Stadium. …

RB William Powell (shoulder), RB Alfonso Smith (illness), DB Justin Bethel (shoulder) and G Daryn Colledge (foot) all practiced in full Thursday. For the Rams, S Rodney McLeod did not practice and RB Steven Jackson and TE Lance Kendricks were limited.

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