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Dealing Cards: A better defense explained, better red-zone offense needed

Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones (55) celebrates his sack against the Jacksonville Jaguars with defensive end Frostee Rucker (92) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Defensively, the Arizona Cardinals are playing their best football of the season. They’ve been good against the run, great on third down and have not allowed a second-half touchdown in the past two games.

Over the last four weeks, the Cardinals have held each of their opponents to under 100 rushing yards, including a season-low 31 at Washington, and no opponent has converted better than 34 percent on third down with two teams (Jacksonville and Washington) successful on only a single third down throughout the entire game.

The question is why and why now. The answer is two-fold, according to defensive coordinator James Bettcher.

On Thursday, Bettcher cited the character in the room — the players believe in each other — and scheme, adding players have bought in to what is being coached.

“Our guys understand that it’s not what you do, it’s how you do what you do. And I think anybody in the National Football League, that is such an important factor in believing in your process and believing that it’s now what you do, it’s how you do what you do that leads to success and leads to you getting through some obstacles,” he said.

“We’ve had opportunities early in the season with certain plays here and there that right now we’re making those plays and that’s a testament to our the guys believing and staying with the process.”

Cornerback Patrick Peterson pointed to the defense’s play post-bye week for the start of the upward trend.

“The numbers really, really started to show the growth that we had as a defense because you got to think about, at the beginning of the year we had at least six new faces and once everybody start to understand the terminology, understand how things work in this defense, I mean, we started playing lights out,” he said.

Peterson isn’t wrong.

The Cardinals entered Week 10 with the NFL’s 24th-ranked defense, allowing 349.8 total yards per game. Now, heading into this week’s matchup with the New York Giants, the Cardinals rank No. 7 (313.3) and are near the top in several other categories, including net yards per game and yards per play over the last five games.

“We can be the first team to ever go top-5 defense three years straight,” Peterson said. “We know what we’re out there playing for right now. We’re just trying to finish strong.”

Red zone offense

Now while the defense has shown improvement, the offense has regressed, especially inside the red zone.

The Cardinals have not scored a touchdown on any of their last nine trips inside their opponent’s 20-yard line, including six missed opportunities at Washington.

“It’s simple execution,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said, specifically mentioning overthrown passes and poor protection upfront. “There are plays there to be made. There are little things like that we got to do a better job with, but the plays are there we just got to execute.”

Twice last week the Cardinals had the ball 1st-and-goal and failed to cross the goal line.

On the first possession, quarterback Blaine Gabbert—since benched in favor of Drew Stanton—threw an interception, and then on the second possession, he threw three straight incompletions before Phil Dawson kicked a 19-yard field goal.

“I kick myself all the time, we score one touchdown we probably win that game,” Goodwin said. “It’s amazing because getting the ball down there hasn’t been the problem. It’s just been putting it in. To win in this league, you got to be good on third down and you got to be good in the red zone. We got to pick it up.”

May be time for Elijhaa Penny

For the second straight day, running back Kerwynn Williams (quadricep/ribs) did not practice.

If Williams is unable to go on Sunday, then the Cardinals may be looking at their fifth different starting running back. And it could be Elijhaa Penny, who has rushed for 56 of his 61 yards this season in the last two games.

“He’s a hell of a back. He’s got a lot of upside,” Goodwin said. “He’s got a heavy head. I like him. I really do. He works hard and he does a good job on special teams.”

Wait. Penny has a heavy head?

“Heavy head,” Goodwin repeated. “He’s going to try to run over you. He’s thick-headed. He’s going to try to run over you.”

In addition to Williams, safety Antoine Bethea (knee), linebacker Josh Bynes (ankle), linebacker Karlos Dansby (knee), tight end Troy Niklas (ankle), defensive lineman Olsen Pierre (illness) and right guard Earl Watford (ankle) missed Thursday’s practice.

In the Christmas spirit

Before addressing the Giants offense, Bettcher made sure to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

With two small kids at home—ages two and six—this is a very special time of year for the Bettcher family.

“My kids are so excited for it,” he said. “We have The Elf on the Shelf that’s going right now. God bless my wife because she comes up with some of the craziest ways to hide that thing. Elfy comes out and blesses our kids each day and helps them anticipate Christmas coming up. It’s a great time of year.”

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