Among the top storylines for the Cardinals heading into camp (clockwise, from top left): Rashad Johnson (49) and Patrick Peterson are the only secondary holdovers, new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles tries to put his imprint on the defense, the Cards must deal with the Daryl Washington suspension, and Rashard Mendenhall figures to be the new starting running back.
The first camp of Head Coach Bruce Arians is coming. There are questions the Cards must answer as they prepare for the season out at University of Phoenix Stadium. Five of them we asked yesterday. Today, here are five more storylines that are crucial to play out as the Cardinals count down to the regular season opener Sept. 8 in St. Louis.
1. How will the defense look under Todd Bowles?
The defense was the strength of last year's team, a unit that was likely robbed of what it could have been – and what results it could have generated – because the offense played so poorly. Then defensive coordinator Ray Horton moved on to Cleveland as Arians brought in Bowles, his one-time defensive captain at Temple and a veteran defensive coach himself. Bowles has done a good job accepting that people are going to make Horton comparisons, choosing not to get wrapped up in it and saying his scheme really isn't that different. Guys like Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are enthused and ultimately, the lineup on that side of the ball has changed enough that many don't even have Horton ties anymore anyway. There will be pressure on the defense because of what they showed they could do last year, and because they will still likely need to be the strength of this team, especially in the division. Bowles understands there will be scrutiny.
2. What will the revamped secondary look like?
Patrick Peterson is a Pro Bowl cornerback and a great place to start in building a secondary. That's good, because everything else is changed. Gone is fellow starting cornerback William Gay, which wasn't a surprise. A path that saw the release of both starting safeties in Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes was a little more so. The Cardinals should have better depth at cornerback, bringing in Antoine Cason, Jerraud Powers and Javier Arenas along with the growth of Justin Bethel and (hopefully) Jamell Fleming. There will be choices to be made, which is usually a good thing. At safety, Rashad Johnson remains after playing well down the stretch, there is veteran Yeremiah Bell and an intriguing young playmaker in Tyrann Mathieu. Some of the secondary's performance will hinge on quality play from the front seven, but regardless, sorting out the lineup will be one of the more obvious parts of camp.
3. Who will start at running back?
It will be an upset if Rashard Mendenhall isn't the starter, if for no other reason than both his history with Arians and the uncertainty with the other backs. Mendenhall is healthy and had his best years under Arians. And, injuries aside, he is only 26 and hasn't had a ton of carries. Motivated by a one-year deal, the Cards believe Mendenhall can be solid. But there is also Ryan Williams, trying to play a full season after injuries torpedoed his first two seasons. Finally, the chance Stanford rookie Stepfan Taylor getting time is possible (and as a longer shot, fellow rookie Andre Ellington). Regardless, the Cards need their backs to be healthier than last year, when Williams went down and Beanie Wells missed a good chunk of the season. The one guy who stayed healthy, LaRod Stephens-Howling, has moved on. Arians believes in the run. Mendenhall makes the most sense – right now – to deliver that for him.
4. Where will the pass rush come from?
It isn't that the Cardinals couldn't get to the quarterback last year. They were fine, with 38 sacks to tie for 11th in the league. Often though, it was pressure through blitzing, which carries with it risk. Linebacker Daryl Washington piled up nine sacks often coming from inside. Next highest on the team was defensive end Calais Campbell's 6½. While Alex Okafor was added in the draft and the team brought in Lorenzo Alexander and Matt Shaughnessy to play outside linebacker, there still is no automatic answer as an edge guy who teams must gameplan for in protection. That doesn't mean Okafor can't develop, or Sam Acho can't take a step forward, or that Campbell and Darnell Dockett can't do enough up front. It doesn't mean Bowles can't design a defense where the pressure will come from everywhere. It is turnovers – not sacks – that are the No. 1 goal. But that starts with making the quarterback uncomfortable.
5. How will the defense deal with the absence of Daryl Washington?
As well as Patrick Peterson played last year, the best player on defense was Washington, who turned into a menace on the field. Then he was hit with an NFL suspension of the first four regular-season games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. While he should return for the bulk of the season (he has a pending court case for assault that could change that if it is adjudicated quickly), the Cardinals must account for his early-season departure. Signing Karlos Dansby helps, and Dansby's arrival definitely seemed to take the edge off Washington's situation. Fitting Dansby and Washington together in the lineup upon Washington's return will be interesting to watch as well. Until then, though, the Cards will have to lean on their new linebackers – Alexander, Dansby, Jasper Brinkley, rookie Kevin Minter – to try and pick up what would seem to be significant slack left by Washington.