Improving defense stuffing opponent ground games

Updated: November 3, 2003, 5:48 PM ET
ESPN

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The defense that was supposed to be the Arizona Cardinals' big weakness this season is getting better all the time, especially along the line.

The past two weeks, Arizona's defensive front has stuffed the running games of the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cardinals won both times. The same thing happened earlier this season in Arizona's victory over Green Bay.

"That's key," Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis said on Monday. "We've stopped the run against some good running teams. To stop the run you have to want to, first of all. It takes throwing you're whole body in there. You've got to have the will to stop the run, and I like what we've been doing with that."

In the last two games, Arizona's front four have been able to get pressure on the quarterback without the help of a blitz, something that hadn't happened this season or last.

Cincinnati managed just 47 yards rushing, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. That forced Jon Kitna to pass, and he was intercepted twice. Had it not been for a roughing-the-passer penalty, it would have been three times.

The Cardinals have benefited from some personnel moves along the defensive line. Arizona rotates Marcus Bell, Russell Davis and Baron Tanner at the two tackle spots. Dennis Johnson has replaced Fred Wakefield at one defensive end, with rookie Calvin Pace consistently improving at the other.

Wendell Bryant and rookie Kenny King came back from injuries to fill important roles. Bryant was shifted from tackle to end, where he backs up both starters. King fills in at tackle.

"It's helped that we've got Wendell and Kenny back, because both of those guys are 300-plus pounders that can run, that can move," McGinnis said.

On Sunday, the Cardinals sometimes had King stand up and move along the line, picking a spot to charge through the line in what the coaches call a "'Bama Package."

"We'll always have some schemes," McGinnis said. "The most glaring one this week was that 'Bama package, but we'll have something every week that we do different."

The line had been singled out for ridicule early this season for its lack of pressure on the quarterback as Arizona got off to a 1-5 start. The linemen didn't have a sack through the first six games. They have had three in the last two.

"Believe me they've heard it, that the defense has been the weakness, and this and that," McGinnis said. "These guys have continued to work. They've gotten better. But we're not there yet. We're not anywhere near there yet."

Davis had one especially memorable tackle, overpowering a blocker to slam Rudi Johnson to the ground for a three-yard loss late in Sunday's game.

"There's a game within a game going on inside. It feeds off of itself," McGinnis said. "Once they start doing it, you could see it. You see how excited they get. But that's the way you have to play defense in this league. You can't just wish it to happen on defense in this league."

Another problem that's disappeared the past two weeks is the turnover margin. The Cardinals were an amazing minus-14 through six games. They are plus-one in the last two. Against Cincinatti, they lost a fumble and intercepted two of Jon Kitna's passes, one by Renaldo Hill and the other by Dexter Jackson.

Hill would have had another one, in the end zone to stop what turned out to be a touchdown drive, but the play was called back by a roughing-the-passer penalty against linebacker Ray Thompson.

Hill left the game with a scratched eye on the play, but came back later and rejoined the secondary in a strong performance.

"Renaldo Hill is a football player. I've said that from day one," McGinnis said. "He epitomizes the guy who doesn't listen to the `they family out there.' `They say this, they' say that.' If `they' had to get into the contest, they'd faint."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index