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Rashad Johnson: Cardinals’ defense is ‘a special one’

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) leads free safety Rashad Johnson, right, after Johnson intercepted a pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
LISTEN: Rashad Johnson, Cardinals safety

It didn’t happen overnight, but during the course of Rashad Johnson’s career with the Arizona Cardinals, the team has come to be known for its defense.

The change can probably be traced to the 2011 season when Ray Horton was hired as the defensive coordinator. That year, the Cardinals improved from 29th in the NFL in total defense while allowing 27.1 points per game to 18th, while surrendering 21.8.

Arizona’s improvement on that side of the ball continued in 2013 when Horton was replaced by Todd Bowles, as the Cardinals finished sixth in the league in total defense while allowing 20.3 points per game. Last season the team was just 24th in total defense but fifth in points per game allowed, with an average of 18.7.

Four games into this year, with James Bettcher leading the way as defensive coordinator, the Cardinals are 15th in total defense and fifth in points allowed per game.

The catalyst for Arizona’s stout defense is a ball-hawking secondary, of which Johnson is a part. The safety picked off two passes in Sunday’s 42-17 win over the Detroit Lions, giving him a team-best three on the season. As a team, the Cardinals have picked off an NFL-leading 11 passes. Along with Johnson’s three, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson have intercepted two, while Jerraud Powers, Tony Jefferson, Justin Bethel and Cory Redding each have one apiece.

“I would have to say this defense is a special one,” Johnson told Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Monday. “I can say that the secondary is the best secondary that I’ve played with in my career. Just as the whole unit — there’s been some very special players that I’ve played with, of course Adrian Wilson  is probably by far the best player I ever played with in the secondary.

“But as a total unit, there hasn’t been a unit that I’ve played with that gelled together that are as smart as we are, that are instinctive with ball skills. It’s just a very, very special group that can be as versatile as they can.”

Johnson pointed to Tyrann Mathieu, who is listed as a safety but can play corner, Jerraud Powers, a corner who can play all over the field, and Deone Bucannon, a safety who helps out at linebacker. There’s also safety Tony Jefferson, who seems to have taken his game to another level this season.

“Tony, he’s been developing every year, getting better,” Johnson said. “We all saw his athleticism as a rookie, but now he’s starting to understand the game even more. His physical style of play and his versatility as well has only allowed him to stand out each and every week. He’s getting better each and every week.

“It’s crazy, all the guys we have in the secondary are all starters. It’s crazy that some of us don’t get opportunities to play every snap because we’re all good enough to play every single snap, we just unfortunately are all on the same team right now. But if we were on different teams, we would all be starters in this league.”

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