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Can The Cardinals’ Defense Win Them A Super Bowl?

Despite dealing with countless injuries on both sides of the ball, the Arizona Cardinals’ overachieving defense has their sights set on the Super Bowl.

Patrick Peterson

Carson Palmer is out. Drew Stanton is in. And such is the hand that the Arizona Cardinals have been dealt.

The loss of their starting quarterback is a sudden wake-up call for the NFL-leading Cardinals, who have already overcome so much to make it this far in the 2014 season.

We began this season by fretting over the offseason subtractions. Daryl Washington was handed a one-year suspension from the league, and fellow inside linebacker, Karlos Dansby, fled in free agency for the Browns. Prior to Week 1, the upstart defense lost arguably its best defensive player in tackle Darnell Dockett with a torn ACL and MCL in practice, before John Abraham, the team’s top pass-rusher in 2013, joined him on injured reserve soon after.

As if the rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball wasn’t enough, Week 2 would bring another blow. And this time it was to the offense. A nerve injury to Palmer’s throwing shoulder kept him sidelined from Weeks 2-5, which the Cardinals overcame largely due to the effectiveness of their backup, Stanton. The Cards went 2-1 during that span, with the lone loss against the Broncos.

Now Stanton is being asked to return to the starting lineup to help everybody forget that Palmer is out for the season with a torn ACL. Though the 30-year-old journeyman backup filled in admirably for Arizona earlier this year, there is a something a bit more puzzling, inevitably more devastating about this particular situation at hand.

In the three games with Stanton under center, the Cardinals averaged 273.0 total yards of offense per game. Compare that to the 359.8 yards of offense with Palmer as the starter. Palmer was the 10th-ranked quarterback in terms of Total QBR on the year, with a 64.8 mark right behind Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. But a look at the NFL leaders in QBR regardless of sample size, Stanton actually fared better than Palmer did. Stanton’s Total QBR was 67.7, which would put him a notch above Palmer and below Manning on the year. And while the offensive totals may have been a shade lower with the backup in, you could also attribute such to the caliber of defenses the Cardinals played, which includes the 49ers and Broncos, both of which are ranked in the top five.

But still, if you remain a skeptic it’s hard to blame you.

There’s no questioning that the Cardinals were a more formidable bunch with Palmer as the starter. A 6-0 mark, 11 touchdowns compared to only three interceptions, and Palmer was making a strong case to be an MVP candidate this season. So while Stanton’s statistics suggest he isn’t much of a drop-off in terms of production, there’s no denying what the game tape proves.

Which leads us to this … How good is the Arizona defense?

As eluded to earlier, this defense is the biggest crop of overachievers in the NFL this season. After losing it’s All-Pro defensive tackle, leading sack artist, two inside backers and safety Tyrann Mathieu early on in the year, the Cardinals’ defense has ascended to the 11th-ranked unit in the league. The 78.6 yards rushing allowed per game is good for the third-best mark in the NFL, while the pass defense — while vulnerable in terms of yardage — has produced a league-leading 14 interceptions.  Overall, the Cardinals have given up a shade above 19 points per game, the fourth-best average in the NFL.

This ravished defense didn’t miss a beat, though, and that’s due to the handful of superstars excelling in their roles.

Patrick Peterson got paid in the offseason, and rightfully so. After a shaky start to the year, Peterson has rounded into form and has been the driving force of this ballhawking secondary. Peterson grabbed hold of a pair of interceptions against the Rams in Week 10, including one he took back for a touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus, Peterson is the 11th-ranked corner that’s played 300 or more snaps in coverage this season.

While Peterson’s picked up his game, his new counterpart has been equally as stingy in coverage. Former Jets corner Antonio Cromartie came to the desert after an absolutely horrid 2013 campaign as the No. 1 corner in New York, failing to live up to the standards set by his former mate, Darrelle Revis. But with a change of scenery and back to playing second fiddle to a superstar, Cromartie has surfaced yet again as a top-notch cover corner. This year, Cromartie has earned a +8.8 coverage grade by Pro Football Focus, good for fourth among corners. And through the first two months of the season, he’s been burnt by only one quarterback-receiver tandem. You guessed it: Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas.

Then there’s that beat up defensive line, the one without Dockett and Abraham, and with Calais Campbell being in and out of the lineup due to his own set of injuries. Still, Arizona ranks fifth against the run, per Football Outsiders, which reveals that the defense holds opposing running backs to 3.36 yards per attempt and stuffs the run 22 percent of the time. And the return of Campbell to the mix has been a tremendous boost to the pass rush. Campbell, according to Pro Football Focus, mustered two sacks and a tackle for loss in limited duty Sunday against St. Louis, but still remains their most effective sack artist.

The question remains whether this defense is as elite as the 2000 Ravens or the 2013 Seahawks to lift the team all the way to the Super Bowl?

That Baltimore defense led by Ray Lewis was arguably the best run defense of all time, holding opposing backs to 2.69 yards per carry and teams to 4.0 points per game in the playoffs. Last season, the Legion of Boom held opponents to 14.4 points per game — almost 10 points below the league average — while also leading the way in yards allowed, takeaways, and opponent passer rating.

This Arizona defense doesn’t have that sort of flare to go down in the history books, but it’s a unit that features a collection of both superstars and veterans that with the right mix have thrived together. Todd Bowles is a legitimate head coaching candidate after the work that he has done with this cast, and his scheme with the talent at his disposal may not earn a memorable nickname, but it’s playing up to the task at hand.

The next couple of games with Stanton under center and this defense tested against NFC West foes in Seattle and San Francisco will provide us with further insight. But if we’ve learned any lesson so far this season it’s not to count out the Cardinals regardless of the situation. They’ve already overcome so much to get where they are now, and their track record suggests another obstacle for them to overcome.

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