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Arizona Cardinals defense may look different, but team expects no drop-off in play

TEMPE, Ariz. — Last season, middle linebackers Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington accounted for 197 total tackles along with 9.5 sacks, six interceptions, 30 passes defensed and 15 tackles for loss.

With Dansby now in Cleveland and Washington suspended for the season due to violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse, the Cardinals appear to have a gaping hole at a position that was once a great strength.

Because of what they’ve lost, many analysts, pundits and experts believe the team’s defense, which was first against the run in and sixth overall in 2013, is going to take a step back.

“Those are the same guys that probably haven’t ever played football a day in their life,” defensive lineman Darnell Dockett said. “As far as numbers and what everybody else may see, that’s their judgment to say that.

“But right now we’re not talking about what we lost; we’re talking about what we’ve got and what’s a reality.”

The reality, at least here in mid-June, is that even with what they’ve lost, what remains is still a pretty talented group. In total, there are 13 Pro Bowl appearances based on defensive performance courtesy of Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie, John Abraham and Dockett, with three of them coming last season. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell is on the cusp of adding his name to that list, and the team also has young prospects Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon and Justin Bethel who are expected to play prominent roles.

“He can be our best,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked how good Bethel, who is making the transition to cornerback, can be. “He’s got all the skill level to be as good as there is — including Patrick.”

The defense was good in 2013. It can be good again in 2014. But will it be?

That question is precisely where some doubt the group, and it’s tough to argue that the pessimism is unwarranted. However, the only thing anyone knows is the defense will look different, not that it will be any worse.

“It may look a little different, but for the most part [defensive coordinator Todd Bowles] has a basis of what he likes to do and how he likes to do it,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “But for the most part we’re going to bring pressure, we’re going to cover guys and we’re going to stop the run up front. Nothing is going to change from the basis of that to be a good defense.”

But is it reasonable to think little will change even though the team lost a pair of dynamic linebackers from last year’s squad?

“Defense is 11 guys; it’s not linebackers, it’s not DBs, it’s not defensive linemen,” Arians said. “It’s 11 guys playing cohesively and hard and fast and violent and with real bad intentions. And we have all those guys, so I don’t see our defense stepping back at all.”

The coach’s confidence is echoed throughout the entire organization. As Arians said back when Washington was first suspended, the team at least got the advantage of timing in that the team had plenty of offseason and soon all of training camp to figure out how to get the most out of the talent it has.

The hope is that what’s there will be enough to compensate for what isn’t. A strong defensive line, which the Cardinals would appear to have, would in theory make things easier for the linebackers, whoever they are. And a dynamic secondary, which the team believes it has put together, will make it easier for the defensive line to do its job.

It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“I still think we’ve got a ton of talent on the front line. The defensive line is the same, the DBs are the same — if not, we’ve brought in even more talent with Deone and Cromartie,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a great group and a bunch of talented guys, so I don’t think you can really judge a defensive off losing one or two guys and say that the talent is gone.

“At the end of the day, a defense is played with 11 guys, and 11 guys just doing their job. And that’s what makes a good defense, regardless of the talent.”

Would the Cardinals be better if they hadn’t lost Dansby and Washington? Most definitely. But will they be worse without them, especially considering all the other moves made in an effort to improve the defense?

The answer to that question cannot be answered yet, though in the meantime it’s something no one in red and white is really concerning themselves with.

“You can sit back and talk about what-ifs and what-could haves and all that, and you’ll look up and be 0-4. So that’s not our approach,” Dockett said. “We’re getting the guys that are here, guys that have done the right things, guys that are committed to the program; guys that sacrifice and weren’t selfish, and want to be here every day in OTAs and minicamps. We’re going to roll with those guys.

“Whether we win or lose, those guys put the sweat and time into it and we appreciate that. We’re going to move forward, we’re not going to sit here and worry about what we don’t got. It happens all across the league. Every year somebody loses a core guy or a guy that plays a big role into their success, and right now we’re going to keep it moving. We don’t need to talk about that.”