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Under first-year DC Al Holcomb, talent gives Cardinals a head start

Carolina Panthers linebackers coach Al Holcomb, right, talks with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) on the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. The Panthers won 17-3. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
LISTEN: Al Holcomb, Cardinals defensive coordinator

There was a reason former Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher remained a candidate to replace retired head coach Bruce Arians.

Last season, the Cardinals ranked sixth in fewest yards allowed per game, and a lot of it had to do with the same ranking in fewest rushing yards allowed. They blitzed 38 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus, and that ranked fifth-highest in the NFL.

The talent remains with pass-rusher Chandler Jones and cornerback Patrick Peterson among those returning.

And that probably means the general strategy remains, too.

Don’t expect an overhaul under first-year defensive coordinator Al Holcomb, who under new head coach Steve Wilks expects the foundation to be built quickly.

“We have to evaluate what the personnel does best. Obviously, there will be some subtleties and some subtle differences in some of the things we do — most importantly, probably the terminology (changes) more than anything,” Holcomb said Tuesday during his introductory press conference. “A guy who plays a 9-technique, he can play a 6-technique.

“That’s pretty common knowledge across the league. It’s just terminology and getting caught up more in that regard. That’s probably the biggest adjustment more than anything else — more than scheme itself, per se.”

In other words, don’t worry too much about the 4-3 vs. the 3-4 debate. Scheme will be dictated by personnel and opponent.

Philosophy is the key.

Like his predecessor, Bettcher, Holcomb believes that stopping the run is the top priority.

Holcomb spent the last five years as the Carolina Panthers’ linebackers coach, where he worked with Wilks. And last season, their Panthers ranked ahead of Arizona in rushing yards allowed per game and points allowed per game.

Prior to Holcomb’s time in Carolina, he was a defensive quality control coach and assistant for the New York Giants, where he worked under defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. They helped New York to a Super Bowl XLVI win over the Patriots.

Wilks, a defensive backs coach by trade, said Holcomb will call the plays for Arizona. The head coach said he hired Holcomb because he knows the expectations and understands Wilks’ defensive philosophies.

The talent expected to return for Arizona in 2018 gives Holcomb a malleable set of tools to work with.

Last year, the Panthers were one of the four teams that blitzed more than the Cardinals, and that would indicate Arizona should remain atop the NFL in terms of aggressive pass-rushing.

It helps that Jones led the league with 17.0 sacks.

“I think it’s a great starting point for us. There are some great pieces, like I mentioned earlier, on all three levels, but especially up front,” Holcomb said.

Reaching second-year pro Robert Nkemdiche and developing his raw talent is also on Holcomb’s to-do list.

“In the little bit of film that I’ve observed and watched, he’s obviously, at times, jumped off the tape,” the defensive coordinator said. “He’s got some ability. That’s something that when we get into Phase 1 and Phase 2, we’re going to sit down and discuss some things and find out exactly what makes him tick.”

The same can be said for Peterson, who after Wilks’ hiring expressed excitement over the Cardinals’ decision.

Wilks sees Arizona’s defense as becoming versatile.

He wants to stop the run, win third downs and halt opponents in the red zone.

“We all know this is a pass-happy league. But the most important thing: You’ve got to make a team one-dimensional. There’s nothing more demoralizing, in my opinion, to a defense as having the offense run the ball up and down the field,” Wilks said.

“We feel like we have enough talent across the board, particularly up front, to where now we can pin our ears back and get back to the quarterback. Being consistent in our approach and our preparation — what’s going to separate us from everybody else is our attention to detail, you know, how we prepare each and every week, and the consistency we play under.”

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