TEMPE, Ariz. — Last season, opponents got to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees just 29 times. Fifteen different quarterbacks were brought down more than he was, so in a way, it should not have been a surprise that the Arizona Cardinals struggled to get after him in their season opener last Sunday.
Yet, given how the Cardinals struggled to generate sacks last season — the 35 they finished with ranked 24th in the league — it’s safe to say that the team is hoping brighter days in that department are ahead.
That said, they were was no concern with their performance in the 31-19 Week 1 victory.
“I was very pleased with our four-man rush and our blitz package,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “They got us a couple of times on screens on our blitz package, but we had good pressure.”
In some ways, applying pressure is just as effective as actually earning a sack. A hurried quarterback is prone to making mistakes, which often leads to incompletions and sometimes to interceptions or fumbles.
That said, it would not be a bad thing if the Cardinals started racking up more sacks.
“I think last week it was kind of difficult because Drew Brees got rid of the ball very fast, but the times he did hold it that’s when we got pressure and sacks,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “We’ve just got to continue to go out there and keep fighting, keep working on our moves, and it will come for us.”
That’s the idea, and any success the team has there will likely be due to linebacker Alex Okafor, who earned both takedowns of Brees Sunday and is expected to be the team’s leading pass rusher this season.
“I thought there was a couple snaps where he was so violent setting the edge and he had great knock back,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “I think you can see that, that’s the first thing that steps out on film when I watch him in this game. He had some good edges, strong edges in the run game.
“And he’s a relentless pass rusher and he’s continuing to grow and learn how to use his length, and you saw it on a couple of them. On the one sack he had, he retraced all the way back downhill on him. His stride length wasn’t short, it was nice and long and the whole movement action. When I put the tape on I was happy for him in that regard. I know he’s got some things that he’s continuing to improve, continuing to work on.”
Okafor led the Cardinals with eight sacks last season, and with the goal being to post an even better total in 2015, he’s off to a very good start. Sunday, against the Bears, the linebacker and his teammates will be tasked with getting after Jay Cutler, who was brought down just twice by the Green Bay Packers last week.
Cutler was sacked 38 times last season, a mark that tied him for the eighth-most in the NFL. He knows Arizona’s defense is one that can make life difficult.
“These guys throw a lot of different stuff at you,” the QB said. “They’ve got a lot of personnel groups, they’ve got a lot of speed, they’ve got a lot of talent on the back end of the secondary and they’re not afraid to come and get you, so we’re going to have to be on it with them.”
Indeed, it is a team effort for the defense.
Asked about their success getting after Brees in Week 1, Okafor gave credit to the team’s defensive backs.
“If they cover like that all season it will make our job very easy,” he said.
The Cardinals’ secondary appears to be one of its strengths, so perhaps it will be like that all season. If it is, then perhaps Okafor and Co. will be one of the best pass rushing defenses in the league. It can happen, and the linebacker knows how.
“Certain teams have blocking schemes and protections, whenever a guy up front gets one-on-one situation, he just has to win, plain and simple — or he has to win most of the time,” Okafor said. “And that’s what creates a good pass rush. Also you mix in some games in there and just continuity within the front four and maybe the front seven, and there you go, there you have it.
“And just relentless effort.”