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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 the house."
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 the secondary.
"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.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: KEN WHISENHUNT