Antrel Rolle looked terrible against the Packers. Eric Green didn't look much better. The fact that Arizona has lost 7 straight is putting a serious crimp in Adrian Wilson's planned trip to Hawaii. And Robert Griffith, the ancient one, lambasted his teammates for not trying hard enough this week. But, overall, the secondary has had a surprisingly strong showing thus far this season.
Rolle, the Packer game notwithstanding, has lived up to the considerable hype that surrounding him when he came out of the University of Miami. Green has been inconsistent, but solid. And, he brings a physical presence to the back four that has been sorely lacking the last few years. Everyone knew what we were going to get from Adrian Wilson (he was who we thought he was!) And Griffith, while exceedingly long in the tooth is a smart player who knows his assignments and plays with far more discipline than anyone else on this defense.
Big plays have been given up. Every defensive back on the team has been guilty of "looking into the backfield." Statistically, they rank 24th in the NFL in passing defense. But they've also produced big plays. The Cardinals lead the league in turnovers forced. And it's nice to lead the league in something besides "collective futility" or "gut-wrenching losses."
It's true that the defense hasn't performed well in several key statistics. It's true that they're a young, undisciplined unit that fails to come up with the big play that turns the game around. It's also true that they're exceeding expectations. If you were told, at the beginning of the season, that they would hold Seattle to 27 points, Kansas City to 23 points, and that Atlanta only scored over 30 on them because of a defensive touchdown, you'd have taken it.
The offense has stuck this secondary with poor field position on too many occasions this season and it has come back to make the unit as a whole look bad. After all, who would've expected, coming into the season, that the offense would be the unit that is holding this team back?
Kendrick Clancy and Gabe Watson (Watson has started a few games due to a Clancy injury), coupled with Darnell Dockett have done a surprisingly good job of not allowing the opposition to run up the middle. When you throw in the improved run support of both Chike Okeafor and Bert Berry (although they've been less than spectacular rushing the passer), this is shaping up to be one of the better run defenses in the division, if not the conference. If you take out the whitewashing they suffered at the hands of the Packers, they're a top 10 rush defense.
Pressure on the quarterback has been an issue. However, it's difficult to say, with how many blitzes Clancy Pendergast calls per game, how Berry and Okeafor would do if they were the focus of the defense's pass rush. They could be all-stars, like they were before they came to Arizona. They could be average players with extraordinary potential that wasn't realized in the Valley of the Sun, like Simeon Rice.
The point is that the foundation of a great team starts with the offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line is pathetic. This much has been established. But, the defensive line is not only holding its own, it's shining.
They're good at blitzing the quarterback. That covers the positives. It shouldn't come as a surprise, since Calvin Pace is a converted end that has yet to make a smooth transition to his new position.
Orlando Huff has not shown himself to be a promising young player. Neither has Gerald Hayes. While no one in this group is a tackling liability, none of them is a guarantee to bring down the ball carrier once they get their arms around him.
They've struggled in coverage, failed in man-to-man, and haven't quite grasped the concept of "zone defense" as yet. They're young, they're raw, they're athletic. They miss Karlos Dansby. They make too many mistakes, too many physical and mental errors, and they're holding back the defense as a whole. With a simply average group of linebackers, this could be a top-10 defense. I understand that statistically, they ranked in the top 10 last season, but I'm talking about one of ten defenses that other NFL teams don't want to face.
Clancy Pendergast has worked miracles with the other members of this defense. Let's see if he can work some more before the season and his time with the Cardinals is over.
While it's surprising that they've done as well as they have (ask Rex Grossman, he sure looked surprised), this is not a grading system that works on a Bell Curve. They still have the same issues they had coming into the season: Focus and Discipline.
Green and Rolle have had lapses. Even crafty veterans like Adrian Wilson and really old veterans like Robert Griffith have suffered lapses during a game. They've also had moments of brilliance. Six turnovers in a game against an undefeated team on Monday Night Football is nothing to sneeze at. Twenty turnovers forced through 8 games is impressive as well.
However, since they're opposite an offense that has been inconsistent and has, quite maddeningly, struggled to score points, they don't have the margin for error that everyone assumed they'd have coming into the season. They're supporting a rookie quarterback. Everyone in the league (and especially their division) knows that they're young, too aggressive, and undisciplined. The rest of the season is therefore going to be an uphill battle.
Like the offense, there are no "discipline" or "focus" buttons that Pendergast can push to make this defense perform the way it should. It once again boils down to practice, hard work, and familiarity. Although, the players really should be familiar with the system after three years.
There are no excuses at this point, only games left on the schedule. If Pendergast can somehow light a fire under these kids, they could at least salvage their pride, since the season is now lost.