The Arizona Cardinals’ secondary will have a decidedly different look in 2013.
In fact, of the four defensive backs likely to be in the lineup on the first defensive snap against the St. Louis Rams on September 10, just two were with the team last season, and only one was a full-time starter.
The full-time starter is Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The other player is safety Rashad Johnson, a four-year pro from Alabama who fared well when pressed into action over the last couple of seasons. Mostly playing as a reserve and on special teams, Johnson is the owner of 133 combined tackles and three interceptions. Now projected to be a starter, his approach has not changed.
“When I was here and the opportunities that I had, I had to prepare like a starter each and every week,” he said at the team’s Tempe training facility after Monday’s OTA (organized team activity.) “My third year, I think I started nine games when Kerry went down, and then last season Adrian had some injuries and some things going on, I had to start games, so each and every week I never knew when my number was going to be called.”
“Kerry” is Kerry Rhodes, a former Pro Bowl safety who had been with the Cardinals each of the last three seasons, and “Adrian” is Adrian Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler who had spent his entire 12-year career in Arizona. Each player was released this offseason, while Johnson was re-signed to a new three-year contract.
Now, some view the turnover as a bad thing. Rhodes and Wilson, while maybe not what they once were, are still fairly effective players. The two combined for 121 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions last season, as well as leadership that is not so easily replaced.
So no pressure for Johnson, right? Right.
“You just can’t add any more pressure than what the game already adds to you,” he said. “It’s already a pressure business; it’s a performance-based business.
“Just go out and make sure you’re prepared. When you’re prepared and when you’re ready to play, when the opportunity presents itself there’s no pressure that needs to be added. You’ve already prepared for it, you’ve already done it and you set yourself up for success.”
It may be early, but so far head coach Bruce Arians is pleased with what he’s seen from Johnson and the other safeties.
“All those guys back there are interchangeable,” he said. “Yeremiah (Bell) has given us great leadership and presence, Rashad’s done a heck of a job, Tyrann (Mathieu)’s doing a heck of a job.
“I don’t see any drop-off whatsoever at that position, if anything it should go up.”
Johnson is excited about the possibilities, as he believes the amount of speed and skill in the secondary will lead to plenty of turnovers. But still, it’s very much a new secondary from the one that helped Arizona collect the second-most interceptions and surrender the fifth-fewest passing yards in the NFL last season.
It’s not as if Johnson did not play a role in that, as he often got the nod over Wilson in certain situations, and it’s also not as if the Cardinals now have a lack of experience in the defensive backfield. In fact, Johnson said one of the things that will help him do his job is that the bulk of the players who will be lining up with him already have a solid grasp on what they’re doing.
As such, the learning curve for Johnson is a bit smaller that it otherwise could have been.
“It definitely makes it a lot easier when you have guys that have played a lot of games like those guys have,” he said. “You can go in and you guys can just lean on each other. We communicate and we trust in each other.”
But Johnson is the longest-tenured Cardinal in the secondary, which is a fact that did not seem to matter to the 27-year-old.
“It’s fun, it’s an opportunity just go out and work on getting better,” Johnson said.
Johnson getting better is why the Cardinals are confident he’s ready to be a full-time starter. And it’s why, if all goes according to plan, no one will think about the guy he replaced in the lineup.