GLENDALE, Ariz. — If there has been one glaring flaw in the Arizona Cardinals’ defense this season, it has been their inability to bring down opposing quarterbacks.
Entering Week 16 they had notched just 26 sacks, a total that ranked tied for 27th in the NFL. Their leader in that category was Dwight Freeney, a veteran who was signed in mid-October and had picked up four sacks since then.
In Sunday’s 38-8 win over the Green Bay Packers, collecting sacks was not an issue.
It was not quite Oprah yelling out, “You get a sack and you get a sack and you get a sack,” but it was close. Arizona produced nine sacks, eight of which were of Aaron Rodgers.
A franchise record it was not, as the Cardinals racked up 10 sacks in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1986. But still, nine sacks is a pretty healthy number for a defense.
“You take away the run and you get them in a one-dimensional game,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of how that happens. “Now, obviously the game had something to do with that and that was the perfect storm, was to get ahead and get them throwing the ball.
“It’s going to be tough coming in here with our crowd and try to throw the football and block, and then when they lost their tackle — they lost both their tackles — we should be sacking him.”
Six different players combined on the nine sacks, with Dwight Freeney leading the way with three. He was followed by Calais Campbell, who had 2.5, along with Deone Bucannon, Kareem Martin and Frostee Rucker, who all earned one. Markus Golden accounted for the other half a sack.
It truly was a team effort.
“That’s the type of stuff that we dream about, literally, big leads, and that’s some of the reason I came back, because you can’t duplicate that type of feeling, replicate that type of feeling, just be able to get after that quarterback, having those types of games,” Freeney said after his first three-sack game since 2006. “When B.A. called me, I was so happy. Seeing how this team plays on both sides of the ball, offensively scoring a lot of points, defense has so much talent in coverage, the talent up front in Calais, playing with those types of guys, it’s priceless.”
Priceless? Not exactly, as the three sacks triggered another $300,000 in bonus money for Freeney, whose spin move is still giving opponents problems and whose presence is something that gives the rest of his teammates confidence.
But while Freeney topped the chart in total sacks, it was Campbell — named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl earlier in the week — who got to Rodgers early and often, setting the stage for what was to come.
“Yeah, it was one of those games where I felt good, it was one of those things where things are going your way,” Campbell said. “I was out there and I left it all out on the field and just had a good time.
“There is a certain thing about championship football, you play with a little more fire. And this was one of those games we felt like there was a chance to make a statement. They’re a good team and they came in here and made it hard on us, but we just kept making plays and things just went our way, kept falling in our hands and we kept making plays.”
Arians called Campbell’s performance “impressive,” adding that’s what they expect from him every game.
In all, the Cardinals dominated a clearly overmatched and overwhelmed offensive line. As Arians noted, it helped that his team jumped out to a big lead, forcing the Packers to take to the air, and it would be unfair not to point out how good Arizona’s secondary was in coverage. With no one open to throw the ball to, Rodgers was forced to hold onto it, and that’s when the Cardinals pounced.
The quarterback did not think the Cardinals did anything special to get after him, though.
“They brought some good pressures, but we had a lot of them picked up,” he said. “There weren’t any zero pressures when they brought one extra guy. It was just some stuff from their odd front which we thought they were going to do. They definitely brought nickel off the slot a number of times.”
The Cardinals have become known for their aggressive blitzing schemes, but if they are able to get pressure without having to bring extra heat, that’s even better. It happened Sunday, and the result was truly a sight to behold.
“We were just getting after it,” Rucker said. “The little things that we have to do technically lead to big things, and today we were just on fire.”
The same way an offense can be in a zone, a defense can be, too. And when that’s the case, it seems as though there isn’t much an offense can do to stop it.
Bucannon said that was the case Sunday, with Rodgers and the Packers paying the price. The quarterback completed just 15-of-28 passes for 151 yards. He was intercepted once and fumbled three times, losing two of them.
“That’s our defense, Cardinals defense, and we take pride in that, playing fast, physical and aggressive,” Bucannon said. “We just want to continue to do that. We have such great athletes in the back end, in the front end, in the middle, so it just allows everyone to play fast.”
If only it was that simple.
The Cardinals will not rack up nine sacks every game, and who knows, if these teams meet again in the playoffs Arizona might find itself struggling to get after Rodgers. But for one game, at least, the Cardinals had no trouble getting after one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
For one game, they held a sack party, and pretty much everyone was invited.
“It wasn’t always pretty. They made some yards but we did our job. Guys stayed in their gaps and we just hunted today,” said Cory Redding, who did not record a sack but did return a fumble for a touchdown. “I mean, we hunted. We just had fun out there. It was a great defensive effort. I take my hat off to them; they played hard. But our defensive coaches drew up a great game plan and we executed it to a T.”
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