| Wilson and his mates must tighten up in the red zone and on third-and-long.
|Harry How/Getty Images|
13 SAN FRANCISCO
20 at Jacksonville
18 at Seattle
25 at N.Y. Giants
8 at Chicago
22 at St. Louis
29 at Tennessee
14 at San Francisco (M)
20 at Detroit
27 ST. LOUIS
3 GREEN BAY
Tim Hightower, Running back: A fifth-round pick out of Richmond last year, Hightower looked to be
the heir apparent to Edgerrin James after rushing for 109 yards and a
touchdown in his first start, in Week 9 against the Rams, averaging
5.0 yards a carry. But over his next six starts he totaled only 134 yards
and gained 2.1 a carry. Though James regained his starting job for the
playoffs, Hightower came back strong in the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl. He
scored a touchdown in each of their first three postseason games, including the
decisive TD catch in the conference final against the Eagles.
Rather than receiving a vote of confidence after James left as a free agent,
however, Hightower was presented with more competition: Arizona's first-round
pick in April was Ohio State running back Chris (Beanie) Wells. One stat of
Hightower's was particularly worrisome: 19 of his 143 rushing attempts as a
rookie went for negative yards, a 13.3% rate that was fourth highest among
players with at least 140 rushes. He addressed that issue through off-season
conditioning, lowering his weight and body fat while getting stronger.
Hightower is taking the drafting of Wells (who was sidelined with an ankle
injury during his first practice) as a challenge, rather than a slight. "It's
not like I was surprised," he says. "It's not like I was disappointed. We were
thin at running back."
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
They're rethinking the defense -- fewer risks, more consistency -- so that the offense doesn't have to do it all.
Adrian Wilson was sitting on a mound of foam blocking pads after a
recent practice when defensive tackle Darnell Dockett sneaked up from behind and
playfully wrapped the Cardinals' strong safety in a bear hug. The teammates
rolled onto the manicured grass and then laughed at how Wilson had allowed
himself to be caught off-guard.
If opponents aren't careful this season, they could find Arizona defenders
taking them by surprise. The unit struck fear into no one last year,
giving up 35 or more points in five games. But a change in coordinators and a
mission statement that includes fitting the scheme to the personnel have the
players believing a return to the Super Bowl is possible.
With quarterback Kurt Warner leading an offense that tied for third in the
NFL in scoring (26.7 points per game), the defense doesn't have to be
great. It has to be consistently solid, which is why new coordinator Bill Davis,
promoted from linebackers coach in February to replace the fired Clancy
Pendergast, has focused on eliminating big plays and on making third-down stops.
Last season Arizona surrendered a league-high 36 touchdown passes, including 13
that covered 20 or more yards (three more than any other team); allowed
opponents to convert 30.3% of plays that were third-and-six or longer (26th in
the league); and gave up first downs on third-and-10 or longer 14 times (tied
for worst in the league).
"The past few years we were a lot more vulnerable to big plays because we
were a pressure-oriented team, and that wasn't always the proper way to do it,"
says Wilson, a ninth-year veteran and a team captain who has spent his entire
career with Arizona. "But that was something Clancy loved to do -- gamble. And when
you gamble, you [sometimes] give up big plays. We definitely want to cut back on
that this year. If it's third-and-eight, third-and-nine, we're not going to send
That doesn't mean the defense will be passive. The Cards have elite talent in
the athletic and physical Wilson, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who can be a
force against the run and on the blitz; Dockett, a quick, physical presence in
the middle of the line who's near unblockable one-on-one; outside linebacker
Karlos Dansby, a tackling machine; and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the
game's top young cover corners. Arizona also added free-agent cornerback Bryant
McFadden (late of the Steelers), who'll provide a greater physical presence to
"We can attack the quarterback a lot of ways," says Davis, 43. "I've got a
lot of dynamic, versatile athletes who can rush. All of the secondary can catch
the ball, and I've got two or three in the secondary who can blitz and beat
running backs in pass protection. What I'm trying to do is maximize the talent
we have. In the meantime I'm diving into the details of each [situational]
defense so the players understand exactly what's being asked of them at each
position, from stance to eyes to technique to why the call was made."
The goal is to keep foes from reaching the end zone on quick strikes
(opponents' scoring drives averaged 7.23 plays against the Cards last year,
fourth worst in the league), to make them work extra hard for every point. If
the D, which ranked 28th in points and red-zone efficiency, can limit opponents
to 21 points per game instead of the nearly 27 it allowed last year, the
explosive offense should get the team a win.
"The change [in coordinators] was about productivity more than anything
else," coach Ken Whisenhunt says. "I don't know if things will look a lot
different in terms of what we do defensively, but I'm looking for consistency.
If we can cut down on the big plays and reduce our points allowed, we should be
successful." And that would give fans in the desert something they've never had:
a consistent NFL winner.
-- Jim Trotter