GLENDALE, Ariz. — Consider Todd Bowles to be a chef, and then realize that he may have finally found the final ingredient needed to make the tastiest meal he has ever produced.
A pass rush.
All throughout the first half of the season, the Cardinals would stop the run and defend the pass well enough, but they just couldn’t bring opposing quarterbacks down.
Last season, Arizona tied for sixth in the NFL with 47 quarterback sacks; this season they had eight through the first eight games.
However, they have added 10 more over the last two games, including four in Sunday’s 14-6 win over the Detroit Lions. The victory pushed Arizona’s record to an NFL-best 9-1.
“They come in bunches,” Bowles, the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator, said after the game. “I can’t tell you, it’s just the effort and the work guys are putting in and getting comfortable with each other, with the stunts.
“They work at it and they’re getting to the point where they’re starting to gel, so hopefully that keeps up.”
What made the pass rush even more dangerous Sunday was that Bowles did not have to send the house in order to get pressure. Sure, he still called a fair amount of blitzes, but the team was generating pressure and getting to Lions QB Matthew Stafford with its linemen and outside linebackers.
Of their four sacks, just one — a fourth quarter takedown by Jerraud Powers — was courtesy of a member of the secondary, as the other three belonged to Alex Okafor (2) and Frostee Rucker (1).
For Okafor, who has battled injuries but was being counted on to help fill the void left by John Abraham, that makes three sacks in the last two games, and five on the season.
“I’m starting to get comfortable out there and just getting back in the swing of things,” the second-year pro said. “Things are starting to pick up for me.”
As things have picked up for Okafor and others, the defense has been able to take its game to another level. Sunday was the first time since 2009 the Lions were held without an offensive touchdown. They had been averaging 20.2 points per game entering the contest.
The secondary will rightly get much of the credit for Sunday’s performance, though a good effort up front makes the job easier for those in the back.
“They’re big and physical in the middle,” Stafford, who completed 18-of-30 passes for just 183 yards and one interception said of the Cardinals’ D-line. “Tommy Kelly and No. 92 (Dan Williams) and Calais (Campbell), they’re big boys. They do a good job of pushing the pocket, but we’ve still got to overcome that.”
Easier said than done, especially in a very loud University of Phoenix Stadium.
“When they can’t hear and it’s tough to communicate because our crowd is so good, the sacks will go up,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “They come in bunches. We’ve been moving guys off the spot, disrupting them, but we’re starting to get home.”
“Just working at our craft,” Rucker said of the surge in sacks. “A lot of people, media mainly, was really technical on us, talking about how much sacks we didn’t have and what not, but we were winning and that was the main focus.
“We’re not sitting here trying to break records or do anything like that; we want to win and that’s all that matters. It’s a selfless group and I love coming to work every day.”
It’s especially fun when you can make life miserable for opposing offenses, and if the Cardinals have truly turned a corner with regards to their pass rush, it seems as if there will be nothing the defense can’t do.
“Getting after the quarterback with a lot of guys is still our identity, but we showed today we can do it with just four down linemen,” Okfaor said.
It certainly opens things up for Bowles, who doesn’t mind not needing to blitz to apply pressure on the quarterback.
“It helps you double certain guys if you can get there with four with the defensive line and you don’t have to do it all the time, take your foot off the gas,” he said. “So it helps us be a little more diverse.”