Cardinals linebackers Markus Golden (44) and Chandler Jones (55) pressure Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier this week.
Speed is the reason, and there is little not to like about the pass-rush package the Cardinals have put in featuring three outside linebackers.
But there is one big reason Alex Okafor – one of those aforementioned linebackers – enjoys it so much.
“Before we implemented it, I wasn’t getting any reps on defense,” Okafor said with a smile. “It’s a great opportunity for me to get on the field more than anything, doing something I love. I love getting after the passer.”
The Cardinals certainly love the production the package has created in its short life.
The team broke it out against the Rams in Week 4. Many times, it features Pro Bowl defensive tackle Calais Campbell with
Okafor, Chandler Jones and Markus Golden. Jones and Golden – who most often come from the edges -- are off to tremendous starts. Okafor – who led the Cardinals with eight sacks in 2014 before sinking on the depth chart last season – has been impressive in his snaps as well.
It was born from discussions between defensive coordinator James Bettcher, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, pass rush coach Tom Pratt and outside linebackers coach Bob Sanders, in an effort to pressure the quarterback.
The idea, Bettcher said, is just to have more speed on the field, to be “half a step quicker” and create matchup problems. All pieces are movable, and opposing offenses have to adjust if say, Jones moves inside.
“It is a versatile formation, it’s versatile personnel,” Jones said. “I can go inside, Alex can go inside, so teams can’t really gameplan and say, this is where Alex Okafor is going to be, this is where Chandler Jones is going to be. This is where Markus Golden is going to be. It’s good to show different looks so teams don’t know. And it is guys flying around, doing what the coaches ask.”
It isn’t like Bettcher uses only those four together, or to rush the passer. Linemen Frostee Rucker and Josh Mauro got a chance against the Jets, for example, to be on the field rushing four. But for pure pass rush speed, it’s hard to beat a defensive line quartet featuring three NFL linebackers.
Bettcher said the group will have a “menu” of options during the game, and within that menu includes freedom to execute
stunts and twists if needed. It’s another layer beyond moving the players around.
Not every sack has come from the lineup, but it’s hard to argue the pressure the Cardinals – and Jones and Golden in particular – have created this season. The Cardinals are tied for third in the NFL with their 19 sacks.
“It’s motivating,” Golden said. “After you get one, you want to get more.”
What the package represents most of all, however, is the ability for the Cardinals to get to the quarterback with just four pass rushers.
That’s been an issue the past few seasons, when sending extra rushers was often the only way to disrupt a quarterback.
“Everyone knows we like to blitz and be in man coverage,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “Obviously there is a ‘beater’ (route combo) for every type of coverage. This gives us flexibility, knowing we have guys who are going to be hunting and getting pressure, letting us play different coverages.”
That could help Sunday against the Seahawks, when playing a lot of man coverage – with defenders’ backs to the quarterback – could allow Russell Wilson to get loose. More zone could mean an easier way to watch Wilson.
Wilson will see the speed group regardless. Okafor, who played a season with his hand in the dirt and calls upon that experience when playing what is essentially a defensive tackle spot, just likes the ability to attack the backfield.
“When you know it’s a passing down, you just go,” Okafor said. “Pin your ears back and just win. That’s one of the best traits of a pass rusher, win on anybody.”
Images from past matchups between the Cardinals and the Seahawks