Last season, an Arizona Cardinals team that romped through the regular season with a 13-3 record featured one of the league's most feared defensive units.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals were exposed in a 49-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game, and a defense that possessed one glaring weakness was exposed.
Even though the Cardinals boasted defensive tackle Calais Campbell and edge rusher Dwight Freeney along their defensive front, Arizona simply couldn't attack the quarterback the way head coach Bruce Arians wanted, as Arizona finished the season ranked 20th in the NFL in sacks.
This offseason, general manger Steve Keim sought to address this issue, and traded the Cardinals' second round draft choice for New England Patriots' pass-rusher Chandler Jones, a fifth-year player out of Syracuse who had already posted a pair of 10-plus sack seasons in his first four years in the NFL.
Jones' addition coupled with the Cardinals' 2015 selection of second round draft choice Markus Golden demonstrated a clear directive to improve the team's pass-rushing capabilities, and in 2016, the dynamic duo of Jones and Golden led a resurgence in the Cardinals' ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Entering the final week of the regular season, Arizona has an opportunity to finish the season with the most sacks of any NFL team, as the Cardinals trail the Panthers by just a single sack.
Arizona's 40.0 sacks this season have helped the Cardinals stay in many contests, as the team's offense has struggled to live up to expectations in a year Arians' squad will end up watching the playoffs at home.
However, neither Jones or Golden failed to live up to expectations, as the pair has combined for nearly half of all of Arizona's sacks this season, with Golden posting a career-high 10.0 sacks and Jones logging 9.5 through 15 games.
On Saturday against Seattle, the Cardinals' season sack total received a big boost as Golden notched a pair of sacks, Jones recorded 1.5 sacks, and Arizona brought down elusive Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson six times over the course of the game.
"You've got to give credits to my coaches and my teammates first," Golden said. "After that, I work hard to get out there and compete and make plays for my team to win and that's how I play. I just get out there to play to win and this is the type of game I had."
Last year, the Cardinals selected Golden in the second round out of Missouri, a pick that some experts viewed as a bit of a reach, considering Golden wasn't even the most productive linebacker on his Tigers' team. However, after posting 4.0 sacks as a rookie in 2015, Golden made significant strides during his sophomore season in the NFL and became the Cardinals' anchor up front.
Even though the addition of Jones overshadowed the potential of improvement for Golden during the offseason, his ability to own the edge was critical to Arizona's defensive success this year.
Aside from becoming a menacing pass-rusher, Golden has proved far superior to Jones as a run-stopper, developing into one of the league's most complete defensive ends in just his second year in the NFL.
On Saturday, Golden made three tackles against the Seahawks and said he wanted to continue the tradition the Cardinals have started under Arians of owning the trenches against Seattle's offensive line.
"It's my job to keep it going and I take pride in that and this year I came in and make sure that I was getting sacks and getting after the quarterback and I just got to make sure that I can keep doing that so we can win," Arians said.
This offseason, Keim and Arians will once again be faced with a difficult decision, as Arizona likely won't have the cap space to add much to its defensive backfield if it elects to sign Jones to a long-term contract. If the Cardinals allow Jones to walk in free agency, the team would be making a clear statement that it believes Golden is ready to own the spotlight on his own, and keep the Cardinals' pass-rushing capabilities up while the team addresses needs at cornerback and or safety.
This season, though, the Cardinals received exactly what they were looking for from their potent 1-2 punch up front, as Jones and Golden appear poised to finish as the only pair of teammates ranking among the NFL's top 15 sack leaders.