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Turnovers Help Cardinals' Cause

Horton's push coming to fruition for defensive unit


Cornerback Patrick Peterson returns a fumble against the Dolphins during last weekend's win for the Cardinals.

Ray Horton, wearing sunglasses befitting an outfielder, stood outside the Cardinals practice facility Wednesday as Ken Whisenhunt waited patiently nearby.

The red mirrored effect of his sunglasses didn't allow anyone to look in. They couldn't see Horton's eyes. They couldn't see where he was looking. They couldn't see what he was thinking.

But Horton isn't the type of coach that relies on innuendo and subtle messages. No need to figure him out. He'll tell you what's on his mind.

"Turnovers were better," he said Wednesday. "Communication is still missing."

The Cardinals defense has been hearing that all week. Last Friday, before the Miami Dolphins and their rookie quarterback traveled cross country, Horton stressed two things to his defense: Turnovers and communication. The more his players communicate, he said, the more turnovers they'll cause.

The defense was listening. It came out and intercepted two Ryan Tannehill passes, and forced and recovered two fumbles.

"It was big for us," safety Kerry Rhodes said. "It basically won us the game. We didn't play particularly well the whole game but we made, in those key situations, key plays for us to get the ball back for our offense. Whatever the situation was, we got turnovers. We needed it."

Horton made turnovers a theme last season and even while the Cardinals struggled to grasp his new scheme until about midseason, the defense kept taking the ball away from opponents. It had nine turnovers through the first seven games and 10 in the final nine, when the Cardinals went 7-2. That emphasis carried over to this season, and thus far it's worked. The Cardinals have 10 through four games, for which Horton credits a better understanding of his scheme.

"It's probably our No. 1 emphasis," Rhodes said. "Last year we didn't get a lot of them. Ray talked to me about getting the guys to do other things, stripping the ball in practice, catching every ball you can in practice. It's been a big emphasis."

To drive home his point, Horton brought to Arizona a tactic he employed in Pittsburgh as the secondary coach. On the first play of every drive, he demands that all 11 men on defense run to the ball, regardless of where it is. Once they're there, their first duty is to stop the runner or receiver, then someone will try to hold him up and another will try to strip the ball. If they can pry the ball lose, then there'll always someone to pick it up.

Even the defensive linemen run to the ball. Nose tackle Dan Williams – all 320 pounds of him – said the linemen embrace Horton's requirement. When a lineman is sprinting to the ball, he thinks it pushes the rest of the defense. No linebacker or defensive back wants to be outrun by a lineman, Williams said with a chuckle.

All three layers of the defense have bought into Horton's theme this year. They understand the more turnovers they get, the better it is for the offense – and themselves.

"Good defense creates more offense," Williams said. "More offense creates a better defense because the defense rests."

But none of that will happen unless the defense communicates. It's not just about talking on the field, setting up schemes and recognizing plays. It starts days before the game.

Whether the defense is hanging out by themselves or in the training room together, it's going over plays and scenarios from either the last game or from something they saw on film.

Even though last Sunday produced the most turnovers in a game for the Cardinals since the 2010 season, Horton said there's still work to be done with the defense's communication.

"I think that's going to be an ever evolving thing with us, where we're never quite 100 percent satisfied but you're striving to get better," Horton said.

Cornerback William Gay, who played for Horton in Pittsburgh, said the Cardinals need to play like they practice.

"We communicate well in practice, just sometimes we don't carry it over in practice," Gay said. "We could do that better."

Thursday night against the St. Louis Rams is the Cardinals next chance to show they can communicate better. Linebacker Daryl Washington wants the defense to get off to a fast start. Against Miami, Washington said the Cards' defense didn't pick up steam until the third quarter, but by then it was facing a 13-0 deficit. Three turnovers – two interceptions and a fumble – in the final nine minutes and overtime helped lead the Cardinals to a 24-21 win.

Getting to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford earlier should set off a chain reaction, Washington said. The line can rush Bradford into making quicker decisions, which means the secondary doesn't play as long and stays fresher, which could lead to turnovers.

It's all cyclical, and the more turnovers the Cardinals force, the longer their winning streak can extend. The Cardinals know the teams who create more turnovers are the teams that play deep into January, and even February.

"That's what we're trying to dedicate ourselves to," Gay said. "Just playing hard and getting turnovers."

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