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Youth Is Served

Defense building for future with fresh -- and enthusiastic -- talent

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Linebacker Sam Acho crushes Rams quarterback Sam Bradford for a sack and forced fumble last weekend during a victory at St. Louis.


The topic comes up often in the locker room, linebacker O'Brien Schofield said, this notion of "The Young Guys" on defense and what it can mean for the Cardinals.

"We realize it's a big responsibility," Schofield said.

The necessary move to insert younger players has been sped up in part by free-agent defections and draft washouts, because the Cards needed to plug holes and they wanted to do it with players that could be built around for a few years.

Moving to a new defensive scheme with coordinator Ray Horton also played a part, as did the trade of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and injuries.

So Patrick Peterson was moved into a starting cornerback role. Sam Acho eventually replaced Joey Porter as an outside linebacker. Dan Williams was elevated to starter at nose tackle, and the Cards drafted David Carter for the position too. Schofield got more reps as a pass rusher, and Daryl Washington became the breakout player on defense even though he's only in his second season.

"You can see it. You can see it," Washington said. "It's the progression. The most important thing is, they see it and they understand it, that as these older guys leave, we are those guys. You take over that generation. As long as they understand it – and it's not someone telling them – it's great."

Even defensive end Calais Campbell, a virtual veteran in his third season, is only 25.

Age is a relative thing in pro sports, of course. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett scoffed at the idea – "I ain't old," he said, and he's not at age 30. But he's in his eighth season and in a league where turnover is constant, young blood must always be added.

"It's always good to see people come out and try and make a name for themselves," said Dockett, who was thrown into the lineup by Dennis Green as a rookie in 2004. "When I came into the league, I was one of those guys. You try to learn early and build on it. Those young guys have a lot of energy, and they have a lot of vets they can learn from."

Acho has been the most visible, stepping in as a fourth-round rookie and playing well enough at linebacker that he likely would have become a starter even if Porter hadn't gotten hurt. Acho praised veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who walked him through Horton's prodigious playbook – "I was overwhelmed, without a doubt," Acho said – and taught him concepts first.

The learning curve has been different for all the players. Peterson has had many ups and downs as a cornerback this season. Schofield has battled his own mistakes, although Carter played well enough that he was challenging Williams for his starting job earlier this season.

"You see yourself as, 'I've got to get better personally,' " Acho said. "You can be grouped as a young player but if you're not a good young player, it doesn't really help you that much."

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said he just wants to stay consistent with his scheme and approach, and avoid overwhelming the youth.

"We will put in a new package and we come out here to practice and they'll blow it and it scares you a little bit," Whisenhunt said. "You realize that's what happens when you have young guys."

The Cards' defense has been very good for a month, although it will be tested by the red-hot Cowboys. Opposing players still mention Dockett and Wilson as they tick off whom they must watch for the Cardinals on defense, but the others are gaining notice.

"You can just see right away they have big upside," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said. "They're fast and explosive. You have to account for them."

Washington sees himself as the bridge, after he was thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie last season and has emerged as a budding star. He just wants the infusion of youth to take advantage of their chances when given, and provide hope of what could be.

"At the end of the day," Peterson said, "we're the future."

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