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Cardinals' coordinator James Bettcher reflects on evolving philosophy

Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator James Bettcher said his defensive philosophy has evolved as offenses have opened up and incorporated more spread formations through the years.

During the first two rounds of last week's NFL Draft, the Arizona Cardinals took a targeted approach, adding a pair of versatile defensive assets with positional flexibility.

The team's first round draft choice, Haason Reddick, and its second round selection, Budda Baker, are both hybrid defenders who can play at various positions within the team's base defense and its subpackages, and Arizona plans to use both players in multiple capacities this season.

On Monday morning, Cardinals' defensive coordinator James Bettcher spoke about the importance of adding players who have positional flexibility, because he said it gives him more options when crafting his defensive scheme. 

"So the versatility part for me is the ability to be an athletic enough safety to go play nickel so you can go cover an extra receiver, so you can cover these athletic tight ends," Bettcher said during an appearance on Arizona Sports 98.7. "A linebacker like Deone Bucannon who is athletic enough to cover backs and tight ends in this league, and most importantly, to be able to tackle in space. That's kind of where the versatility thing comes in for me because to be able to play nickel as a safety, you have to be an extremely talented athlete. To be able to play linebacker in this league, you have to be able to tackle in space, to be able to cover both backs and tight ends, you have to be a very talented athlete to be able to do that." 

Bucannon transitioned from safety to inside linebacker after college, while Reddick is expected to transition from his role as an edge rusher at Temple to inside linebacker with the Cardinals. Baker, meanwhile, was a safety in college, but developed plenty of experience playing as a nickel corner for the Washington Huskies. 

Bettcher said Reddick's ability to cover tight ends and running backs will be critical as he assimilates to the NFL, whereas Baker will need to prove he can help the Cardinals defend spread sets by dropping into the box and covering extra receivers. 

"I think to me, one of the key reasons as to why it's important is because of how the game in the National Football League probably over the last five or six years has continued to evolve, to be a little more open, a little more spread, and I don't want to use the word spread like college because it's not like the spread offenses in college," Bettcher said. "But the formations are more horizontal than they are vertical and stacked up, in other words, what we talked about at the beginning, there's not as much two-back, there's not as much two tight ends, or if there is two tight ends, one of those guys is split out like a receiver."

Even though Bettcher now has two more players who can plug in at various spots within his scheme, he said Monday that one of the most important parts of his job is finding a balance between building a deep defensive playbook and simply making calls that give his players an opportunity to stop their opponents.

Bettcher said one of the challenges he faces is overloading players with information or play calls that will slow them down, when he knows that s long as he gives his players favorable matchups, they'll have plenty of opportunities to succeed.

"There is a balance you have to have between the volume you carry and being able to keep our guys in a position where you play fast, play hard and play with a ton of energy," Bettcher. "If guys are thinking too much, they're not playing the game at the speed that's necessary to play at this level. The game is all about matchups, that's what it's about. Any call that you put guys in, scheme-wise, no matter how good the call might fit what the opponent might be doing, if it doesn't create the matchups, it's not a good call."

Bettcher said at this point in his career, he knows his primary responsibility as a coordinator is to give his defense the opportunity to exploit favorable matchups wherever he can find them, even if that means passing up play calls he likes in certain situations.

"That's certainly one thing I've learned as a coordinator over the last couple of years, you can draw it up on paper, you can see it on tape, and you say, wow we really need to be in this call cause this really defends scheme-wise what they're doing, but if it doesn't give you favorable matchups or good one-on-ones for you, put your players in the best position possible to do what they do best, then really it's not a good call," Bettcher said. 

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