Cardinals defense takes on challenge of a new-look offense in Week 1

Sep 6, 2018, 2:46 PM | Updated: Sep 7, 2018, 8:11 am
Dallas Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin (89) is tackled by Arizona Cardinals defensive back Antoine B...
Dallas Cowboys tight end Blake Jarwin (89) is tackled by Arizona Cardinals defensive back Antoine Bethea (41) and linebacker Deone Bucannon (20) after catching a pass during the first half of a preseason NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
(AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Defense should be a strength for Arizona this season. After all, the majority of key pieces are back from a unit that helped drag the Cardinals to an 8-8 record last year.

That’s not to say going .500 was ever the plan, but considering the injuries the team suffered across the board in 2017, just breaking even was an accomplishment. And the defense was at the center of most of those wins.

They’ll be asked to shoulder a heavy load again this time around, but things will be undeniably different. Al Holcomb is the new coordinator. Steve Wilks brings a defensive mind to the head coaching role. And the scheme itself is different, switching to a 4-3 base.

Beyond that, a few players have exited, headlined by Tyrann Mathieu. But that’s just the reality of football in 2018. Every team goes through that. And the Cardinals responded by adding pieces like Tre Boston and Jamar Taylor, not to mention the continuing evolution of Budda Baker and Markus Golden’s eventual return from injury.

So yes, expect the defense to be at the center of a lot of Arizona’s wins this season. If they aren’t, well, the Cardinals might not have as many wins as they’d like.

Week 1, in particular, poses some unique challenges though. When the Washington Redskins come to town on Sunday, their offense will look a lot different than they did the last time they played a meaningful game. Alex Smith has replaced Kirk Cousins as the quarterback, while Adrian Peterson has taken over the primary duties at running back.

It’s never easy to completely gameplan for an opposing offense in the opening week of the season anyway, but it’s that much tougher when the signal caller and lead back are new.

Sure, there’s plenty of tape out there on Smith and Peterson. But there’s none on them in their current roles within Washington’s offense.

“You watch a lot of the Redskin tape from 2017 and you see a different quarterback,” Holcomb explained on Thursday. “So you’ve got to keep everything in perspective and understand that that’s their system, that’s their scheme. And, obviously, with Alex being in a different system in previous years, you may just go back and watch some of his tendencies, some of the things that he likes to do.”

One of the things Smith likes to do is get rid of the ball quickly. And that’s the sort of tendency that can force a defense to adjust.

“We’ve got to do a good job of trying to still affect the quarterback in different ways, getting our hands up, playing good coverage, making him hold the ball,” Holcomb acknowledged. “Front and coverage work hand in hand, so it’s got to be a collaborative effort between the D-line and the back seven.”

Of course, it helps to have a weapon like Chandler Jones up front. Being able to deploy the NFL’s reigning sack leader can go a long way to keep the opposing offense off balance. And it doesn’t hurt to have Patrick Peterson roaming the secondary either.

“The great thing about playing against the Redskins is that, obviously the plays are going to come out different, the quarterback is different, but we pretty much have the mannerisms of the quarterback, Alex Smith,” Peterson pointed out. “We know what he likes to do and, obviously, when you get a new player, you’re going try to do what he does best.”

In other words, Washington is going to have to play to Smith’s strengths – maybe moreso this week than any other – as they get accustomed to having him run their offense. That likely means play action, bootlegs and other calls designed to keep Smith moving.

“We have a good feel of what Alex likes to do,” Peterson went on. “Now we just have to kind of go out there and mash the two together, as far as how Jay [Gruden] calls plays, and what they did to us over the years, how they’ve tried to attack Carolina’s defense. Or any other 4-3 defense.”

That’s the plan for Sunday. And if the relative novelty of Washington’s offense ends up posing too many challenges for Arizona’s defense, the revamped Cardinals’ offense could very well end up doing the exact same thing to the Redskins’ defense too.

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