In 2013 the NFC West got it done on defense. Seattle and San Francisco always come to mind first. They have risen to elite status in the NFL with their lights out defense. However, there is another team in the division that may be just as good.
Due to the franchise's losing history, they have been easily forgotten and rarely talked about on a national level. However, the Arizona Cardinals showed that they are building a team that measures up with the elite defenses in their division.
So how did the 2013 Cardinals defense compare to the rest of the NFL?
The Cardinals lead the league in stuffing the run last year as well as finishing in the top ten in takeaways and in sacks. A great combination of talent and scheme was highlighted by their best performance of the year when they became the only team to defeat Seattle at CenturyLink Field in 2013.
How did they do it?
It certainly wasn't the 4 interceptions thrown by Cardinals QB Carson Palmer. They got it done by holding RB Marshawn Lynch to 71 yards on 18 carries and Russell Wilson to a dismal 11/27 for 108 Yards, 1 TD, and 1 Int. Where previous teams had failed to consistently keep Wilson in the pocket, the defense was able to execute Todd Bowles game plan to perfection for the victory.
Despite the Cardinals missing the playoffs, they finished 10-6 and have plenty of momentum and talent to build a better big red machine in the off-season.
The Cards went into the 2014 draft looking to further improve their defense. In the first round they added the hard hitting safety Deone Bucannon out of Washington State. He should be an impact starter that provides additional run stopping as well as a much needed support over the middle. This is a huge area of need as the Cardinals were routinely gutted by tight ends over the middle last year.
With their third round pick they selected Kareem Martin who is a very long, very athletic defensive end out of North Carolina that can win with his length in 1-on-1 battles. His style of play should fit in nicely on the opposite side of Calais Campbell.
Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim had beefed up the defense early in the draft with 2 rookies bolstering an already fierce defense featuring; veteran lineman Darnell Dockett, and a pair of Pro Bowlers in Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington.
So what's to worry about in 2014?
The Ugly (I know it should be “The Bad” but trust me this part is much uglier than the rest)
As we all know the NFL stands for “Not For Long”. Just when the Cardinals were flying high on optimism, on the morning of May 30, 2014 the NFL announced that Washington would be suspended for the entire 2014 season due to a violation of substance abuse policy.
There was no mention of Washington's arrest which happened on May 3, 2013 when his ex-girlfriend told police he pushed her down, breaking her clavicle. The linebacker plead guilty to felony aggravated assaulted charges and was sentenced to one year of probation.
It has not been specified if Washington had failed a drug test or failed to follow proper protocol. Either way, Washington is no stranger breaking this rule.
In 2013 he served a four-game suspension for a substance abuse violation. It was easy to see the Cardinals missed his presence during these games. Upon his return, Washington had an immediate impact and improved the defensive unit.
This time around, his actions will cost him an entire season, $2.9 million in base salary, plus $100,000 in bonuses.
But it is going to cost his team as well. General Manager Steve Keim is not happy with Daryl. The Cardinals will have to make some important choices that will impact their future.
Not only will the Cardinals miss Washington on the field this season, the other half of last year's ILB tandem has moved on as well. Karlos Dansby (now with Cleveland) racked up 114 Tackles, 6.5 Sacks, and 4 interceptions last year playing along side Washington.
So just when the future was looking bright for Arizona, they now face some challenges replacing two of the biggest defensive play makers from last year's roster.
Who's up for the challenge?
The Bad (Possibly “The Ugly Continued” however nothing is more ugly than Washington's suspension)
Currently there are 7 inside linebackers on the roster. The most likely to get the starting nods will be 13 year veteran Larry Foote and 23 year old Kevin Minter.
Minter has shown some flashes on the field, but lacks experience. Last year he recorded just 4 tackles in 13 games. With the drastic changes in circumstances he may be thrown in and forced to become a fast learner.
Foote is a smart veteran and a talented football player. In 2012 he recorded 113 tackles and forced 2 fumbles. However, a torn bicep sidelined him for most of 2013 and the Steelers released him at the end of the season. At age 33 his health and desire will be, for now, unanswered questions.
Lorenzo Alexander may see some time on the inside as well, although he usually plays at the outside linebacker position. Keenan Clayton is entering his fourth season. He has seen some action, but his only career start was in 2010.
There is not a lot of experience at this position. The remaining candidates consist of a handful of un-drafted players looking to make their first NFL roster: Glenn Carson, Kenny Demens, JoJo Dickson, and Jonathan Brown.
The lingering question is how badly will the loss of Washington impact the Cardinals.
GM Steve Keim had this to say on the subject:
“It’s completely unacceptable that Daryl has once again put us in this position. We all know what the consequences are and will deal with them. From a personal standpoint, our hope is that this suspension will give Daryl the opportunity to accept the necessary help and guidance to get his life back on track and we will certainly support him however we can.
“As it pertains to our team, our approach is the same as it’s always been: next man up. We talk a lot about how critical depth is to a team because situations always arise where you lose players, whether by injury or other circumstances such as this one. One player’s absence is another’s opportunity. That approach has served us well in the past and we will rely on it now.”"