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Dealing Cards: Communication has allowed defense to flourish

Arizona Cardinals defensive back D.J. Swearinger (36) celebrates his defensive stop after Seattle Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise (22) falls short of a first down during the second half of a football game, Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Did you know the Arizona Cardinals have the top ranked defense in the NFL?

It’s true.

At least, in terms of yards allowed, the Cardinals are at the top of the list, giving up an average of just 297 per game. For good measure, they are also tied for fourth in the league in points allowed, surrendering just 17.5 per outing.

Good enough?

“I think our guys have played some exceptional football, defensively, at times,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said Thursday. “And I think we’ve played some defensive snaps that aren’t good enough.

“The only way we are going to get to where we really want to be, and that’s winning games each week, we’ve got to work on our consistency defensively. Sure, I think if you’re a stats guy you love it, but all we want to do is win games. That’s what’s most important to us.”

A deeper dive into the stats reveals the Cardinals’ 21 sacks are tied for eighth in the league, while their nine interceptions rank tied for fourth and their 13 forced fumbles are tied for third. Their six fumble recoveries place them in a tie for ninth.

So, when looking for reasons why the Cardinals are 3-4-1, it is perhaps a little unfair to point a finger at the defense. Still, the Cardinals have not shut anyone out, and there have been instances where they have struggled to slow opposing offenses.

Over the bye week, Bettcher and the defense took some time to watch film and reflect on the season’s first half, looking for areas they can improve.

“Some of that we’ll keep in the room that we talked about, and some of the other stuff it just comes down to being on the same page,” he said of what they discovered. “And as we’ve gotten better defensively through the course of the season — because you can see a progression, and I’m sure everybody that’s watched us play can see a progression — as we have communicated better, we have played better, and that’s something that must continue for us defensively.”

Bettcher added effort has not been a problem this season, as there have not been many downs where he thought the team needed to play harder.

“Because our guys play passionate and they play hard, and that’s the most important thing about playing defensive football in the National Football League, you’ve got to play passionate and you’ve got to play hard,” he said. “And you’ve got to play smart, and that’s communication.”

Cornerback Patrick Peterson echoed that sentiment, noting the emphasis going forward in the season’s second half is on making sure they are on the same page at all times.

“And two, just make sure we’re playing with that passion and energy for 60 minutes and having fun,” he said. “Because when we do that for 60 minutes, we’re a tough defense to score on. We’re a tough team to beat when all three phases are on the same page.

“So for the most part, as a defense, we have to make sure that our communication is at an all-time high, we have to make sure that we are playing with that passion and energy that we played with in those games that we won. If we can carry that over to the second half of the season for 32 quarters, because that’s what we have left in the regular season, I think we’ll be OK.”

Given the Cardinals’ record and the schedule that remains, they cannot really afford the defense to slip at all in the second half of the season. However, Peterson does not see it as a situation where the defense has to carry the team.

“It takes all three phases to win ballgames,” he said. “Obviously if one phase is not playing up to its capability, obviously we have to pick up the slack. But we’re not looking to put the team on our back because we still have guys over on the offensive side that are capable of putting up points.

“Carson (Palmer) coming off one of his best seasons yet, not having the season that the would hope for as of right now, but we still have the utmost confidence that those guys can get the job done.”

Injury update

The official injury report can be found here, and because Thursday was coordinators day, there was not much information given regarding players’ health.

One nugget, however, came from Bettcher when talking about his team’s options in the slot as safety Tyrann Mathieu is dealing with a shoulder injury.

“I think the guys that are going to be in there, guys that are taking reps this week — Ty’s health continues to get better and better,” he said. “I don’t comment on the injury report and all that stuff, but however that ends up being when we come to play on Sunday we’ll have full confidence in, whether it’s Ty or one of the other guys playing nickel that they’ll be prepared to get the job done.”

About that depth…

With Earl Watford and John Wetzel now starting at right guard and left tackle, respectively, the Cardinals’ depth along the offensive line looks a little thin. Or, if not thin, inexperienced.

The key reserves would appear to be rookies Cole Toner (guard), Evan Boehm (center) and swing lineman Taylor Boggs. All have earned solid reviews and offer potential. None are anywhere near proven.

Boggs has appeared in seven NFL games, all with the Chicago Bears. Boehm has appeared in all eight games for the Cardinals this season, with minimal snaps on the line. Toner has yet to appear in an NFL game.

Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who works with the offensive line, shared some thoughts on the next men up along the line.

“Kind of another swing guy, can’t play tackle but both guards and the center,” he said of Boggs. “Smart. Boggs had a pretty good chance probably to make the team until he got hurt. I don’t think he even played in a preaseason game. But smart guy, physical. Kind of another mini-A.Q. (Shipley).”

As for Toner and Boehm, either one could be in line for the first significant action of their careers any point over the next eight games.

“Cole, if he has to be called upon, he’s got to rise to the occasion, expectations won’t change — I’ll still be screaming and cursing,” Goodwin said. “And then Boehm, he’s been getting a little spot duty on kickoff returns, so he should be comfortable.

“And the fortunate part, some of those early games that we had a huge lead, Boehm was able to get some snaps. So I don’t think when the lights come on and they hit the grass, I don’t think they’ll be shocked. I just think the speed of the game is probably a little bit faster than it is in the preseason, and the competition will be a little bit better because they’re not going against twos and threes in the fourth quarter now.”

A fifth-round pick out of Harvard, Toner expressed confidence that both he and Boehm, a fourth-round choice out of Missouri, would be ready to play if asked. He is confident he would “rise to the occasion if the lights are on and I play.”

That said, he understands there were and are things to learn.

“The whole league is full of freaks,” he said of what his biggest adjustment has been in year one. “There’s not as many freaks, I guess, in the Ivy League. Meaning the size and speed that everyone has is much more. Everybody has secondary moves. If you stop one move, they’re going to have another move to counter that. You’ve just got to always be ready for that.”

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