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Arizona Cardinals defense may have to trigger first win of season

Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson (26) scores a touchdown as Arizona Cardinals linebacker Deone Bucannon (20) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — When injuries ravaged the 2017 Arizona Cardinals and essentially derailed their season, it was the defense that stepped up to salvage a respectable 8-8 record. As it turns out, the 2018 version of the team might need more of the same.

Entering Sunday’s matchup with the Chicago Bears, the Cards sit at 0-2. That’s obviously the worst record you can have two weeks into the season but, then again, it’s only two weeks. Problem is, it’s felt a lot worse than just two losses.

Getting blown out by Los Angeles was bad, but the Rams might very well be elite. It’s possible to write that off as a bad performance on the road against a high caliber opponent. Couple that with a lopsided defeat at the hands of a nondescript Washington team in the opener, though, and things seem pretty dire. It’s not even October, and Arizona’s already in desperate need of anything positive to build from.

So now there are essentially two paths to take for a Week 3 victory: either find a way through Khalil Mack into the end zone or make some plays on defense against Mitchell Trubisky and the Chicago offense. On paper at least, that second option looks a lot more realistic.

“Obviously, with a young quarterback, you want to kind of show him different looks, kind of show him some things that aren’t there,” Patrick Peterson explained. “Kind of confuse him a little bit, mix up coverages a lot, send some pressure at him so he starts getting his eyes down from down the field versus the pressure. So there’s some things you can do to confuse a young quarterback but – besides last week’s game – he’s been doing a great job of protecting the football.”

As much as the Cardinals have struggled, there were actually signs of improvement on the defensive side last week. It’s weird to even think that following a 34-0 loss, and it’s not like the positives were easy to find, but they did manage to hold Todd Gurley to just 42 yards on 19 carries. That’s not bad against any running back, let alone the guy who many consider to be the best in the NFL right now. And it was a welcome sight after Arizona’s rush defense was shredded by the Redskins in Week 1.

Then again, Gurley found his way into the end zone three times anyway. There’s still plenty of work to be done here.

That helps explain why head coach Steve Wilks was playing crowd noise of the team getting booed by their own fans at practice this week. It happened in the loss to Washington, and it’s not something the Cards want to go through again.

“The message definitely was received,” Peterson said, noting that it was embarrassing to go through that in the first home game of the year.

To right the ship, the defense is going to have to be stronger in the second quarter, where they’ve already been outscored 40-0 this season. And they may need a game-changing play or two to swing their fortunes and put Sam Bradford in a better spot to make something happen on offense.

Fortunately, there’s a decent chance they’ll get a defensive playmaker back into the lineup, as Markus Golden has been working his way towards a return.

“Well that’s what we’re looking for: a little bit of juice,” defensive coordinator Al Holcomb pointed out. “He brings that. He brings the energy, the spark. Even regardless of how many snaps he plays, I think just having his presence, him dressed on gameday in the locker room, his teammates seeing him. I think that’s going to bring a lot of value for us.”

Golden’s 2017 campaign ended with a knee injury in Week 4. He erupted for 12.5 sacks in 2016 though.

“Getting Markus back would add another dimension to our defense,” Peterson acknowledged. “Our defensive front especially. There’s nothing like having a rotation, especially up front. Keeping guys fresh – especially with this pass-happy league – having him back into the rotation would be huge for us. Just his whole attitude, what he brings to the table, just everything about Markus. We miss him very, very much.”

That alone might not be enough to get the Cardinals a win. But a Golden return would give Arizona another playmaker on that side of the ball, along with Chandler Jones, Budda Baker and Peterson. And right now anyone who can potentially deliver a big moment is a welcome sight.

Of course, even if the defense does its part to swing some momentum, the offense will still need to be better too. And there’s a fine line between making a play and trying to do too much.

“At the end of the day, going through a new coaching process is all about everyone trusting in one another to do their job,” Peterson said. “You know, not doing too much or not trying to make up for someone else’s job. Just doing your job to the best of your ability and we’re ending up, defensively, coming out pretty successful. I just think now we’re at the point of the season that we’re seeing the things that we’re doing bad on film. Now we’re starting to clean it up. Now we’re starting to get better at practice.”

This is the week to put it into action. Because a 0-3 record would look just as bad as it feels.

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