If one is to simply look at the Arizona offense, it would be easy to ask the question: How is this team 4-2? With a carousel at quarterback and the top two running backs on the shelf, the Cardinals are more of a no-offense huddle than a no-huddle offense. Yet, they're 4-2 and, if not for a missed field goal last week, would be 5-1 heading into the Metrodome Sunday.
The reason for the unexpected Cardinals success has been due in large part to a defense that has, at times, been dominant and always been steady. Dating back to Week 8 of the 2011 season, the Cardinals have posted a record of 11-4 and it's not a coincidence.
After falling to 1-6, the Cardinals wanted to shake things up. They felt they had the personnel to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, but nobody does such a move midstream during an NFL season. The Cardinals did and the results speak for themselves. They have not allowed more than 23 points in any of their last 15 games and, while not recognized nationally as being one of the league's top defenses, the numbers speak louder than the works from gang at NFL Network or ESPN.
While technically a 3-4 defense, when you watch the Cardinals on film, they're much more of a one-gap defense that brings four of five players on every down. Like the Eagles of a few years back, you know they're coming with additional players, but they dial up different options every play. One play it will come from the left. The next blitzer will come from the right. The next will come up the middle. They mix and match their pressure, but it's consistent.
The Vikings offensive line has been impressed with what it has seen from the Cardinals, who look more like the defenses run by the Ravens, Steelers and Eagles than the classic 4-3 defensive front the Vikings saw last year when they pounded Arizona into submission before the Cardinals made the switch to the 3-4.
"They get after you," offensive tackle Phil Loadholt said. "They've got a great front seven and are very strong up front. (Defensive tackle Darnell) Dockett is one of the best in the league and Calais (Campbell) is getting a lot better and more consistent. (Nose tackle Dan) Williams has improved a lot, too. They do some good things up front and that opens up holes for the linebackers and they do most of the damage."
The diversity of the pressure the Cardinals defense brings is best reflected in their sack numbers. The front three of Dockett, Campbell and Williams have combined for just two sacks, but they have opened opportunities for oncoming linebackers to get open lanes to the quarterback. LBs Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield each have four sacks, Sam Acho has three and Quentin Groves and Paris Lenon each have two.
Just as offensive linemen do the dirty work to open holes for running backs, the Arizona defensive linemen do the grunt work to find weaknesses in the pass protection of opponents and let the linebackers clean up from there.
"They're an active front and bring a lot of pressure consistently," center John Sullivan said. "They execute it well and can give you some complex looks, but, at this point of the season, there isn't much that we haven't seen before. It's just about communicating on our side of the ball and getting everybody on the same page. Is it challenging? Yes. But defenses try to disguise what they're doing every week, so it's always a challenge in that respect."
The problem the Cardinals pose for opposing offenses is that they alternate where they decide to overload. They are fearless in taking chances and have been very successful against mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Michael Vick, which doesn't mean that Christian Ponder can simply roll away from the where the heat is coming from and find wide open receivers.
The job of the Arizona front seven is to force a quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly and it's a job they execute extremely well.
"The biggest thing is that they're not afraid to bring pressure," guard Charlie Johnson said. "First down, second down, third down – regardless of the situation they'll bring it in third-and-long or third-and-short. It just doesn't matter. They're not afraid to bring it any time. You just have to be aware of what they're going to come with because you know it will be coming from somewhere."
It has taken a lot of film study, but, when something works in the NFL, teams tend to continue to do it. As such, they can at times tip their hand. If an offensive line is prepared for what is coming, they are much more likely to be able to pick up the pressure, knock the linebackers off their path to the quarterback and buy him the extra second or two he needs to deliver a dart downfield.
"You have to do a lot of homework and be prepared," Loadholt said. "There are always tells and keys to every defense and you need to make sure you recognize them and have good communication on the line. With Sullivan, we never have a problem with communication, so it's just making sure you pick up all the different looks they give you."
In the end, the Cardinals are what Denny Green thought they could be when he was coaching them. They don't try to mask what they are defensively. They're going to come after quarterbacks like a poor man's version of the 1985 Bears and the only certainty is that they will be coming. From where? That's the million-dollar question.
However, the Vikings believe they have the Cardinals scouted well enough that they can stick to what they do and not get into taking chances trying to predict where the pressure will be coming from. Too often that can be a recipe for disaster and the Vikings aren't about to play those kind of "I think this is what they will do" type riddles.
"You never want to get in a guessing game, because when you start over-thinking it and trying to predict what they'll do, that's when you make mistakes and they get the advantage," Johnson said. "That's what they want and we won't get baited into that. We will just approach it that we will expect pressure on every play and be surprised when they don't."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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