The Cards use a 3-4 look in practice: Three down linemen, two outside linebackers standing up, and two inside linebackers.
FLAGSTAFF – It's always been about the personnel.
When Ken Whisenhunt first came to Arizona to coach the Cardinals, his desire to use the principals of a 3-4 defensive alignment was because he felt it fit his players the best.
The Cardinals have kept it because the scheme also incorporates many other concepts Whisenhunt embraces – an ability to blitz from many directions, a more aggressive tone, and an opportunity to get more athletes on the field.
It's a harder defense to play because players don't often come in trained in the varied roles they might fill, but, Whisenhunt said, "it's a better fit."
Only to a point, though. The personnel Whisenhunt likes putting in some positions also will keep the Cardinals a hybrid. The Cards will never be a 3-4 team in the truest sense of the concept. Not as long as Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are around.
"We can only morph so close," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "We are as close as we can get."
In a true 3-4 look, the defensive linemen are two-gap defenders – meaning the three down linemen play head up on the two tackles and the center, and move whichever way the line moves. That also means they are taking up blockers rather than making a bunch of tackles.
Talents like Dockett and Campbell would be wasted in such a scheme.
"The coach lets us go a little bit," Campbell said. "He lets us play gap-control defense and shoot gaps and lets us use our speed to our advantage. Especially Dockett. He shoots the gap better than anybody I have ever seen."
The Cardinals often incorporate 4-3 looks and there is little question the defense remains a hybrid.
Defensive lineman Alan Branch, who was a rookie in Whisenhunt's first season, said the players have finally grasped exactly what the coaching staff has tried to instill. That helps the learning curve for new players, as had imports that have played in such systems like linebackers Clark Haggans and Joey Porter.
"Since I have been here, I have seen more athletic guys come to the defense," Branch said. "I am excited to see what we have. If we have big guys like me up front and then linebackers behind us that run that fast, we're going to be right."
Again, it comes back to personnel. "You can't just ask anybody to do certain jobs," Porter said.
A 3-4 team has to have "two mean middle linebackers" that can play downhill, Porter said. A "mean nose tackle" is necessary to take up blockers. The defensive ends have to be able to play the run. And the outside linebackers have to be versatile enough to beat a tackle on the pass rush or cover a pass catcher.
"You start with the front seven first," Porter said. "You can mix the secondary, but that front seven has to be solid, but because if the front seven can't hold up in the 3-4, you need to start from scratch."
The Cards won't be starting over. Right now, they're satisfied they've found the right formula.
"I think we are maximizing our players' talents," Davis said. "At the end of the day, that's our job as coaches."
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