New-look defense might have to carry Arizona Cardinals to give them chance

Arizona Cardinals fans and the other 31 NFL teams still do not know whom the team will go with as starting quarterback in Week 1 when the Cardinals open the season at Washington.

Head coach Jonathan Gannon is not revealing his plan and trying to give his team a competitive advantage.

But there is no such pressing question on defense. The three-man defensive line starters figure to be the same ones deployed over the past month in training camp and the preseason (ends L.J. Collier and Jonathan Ledbetter and tackle Leki Fotu), the linebackers look set with Dennis Gardeck and Zaven Collins on the outside and Kyzir White and Krys Barnes or Josh Woods inside and the secondary, with Isaiah Simmons traded, ready to rock with cornerback Marco Wilson and safeties Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson.

Wilson may not be ready to start the season due to injury, so rookie Kei’Trel Clark may be pressed into service right away.

At the other cornerback spot, it figures to be Antonio Hamilton. Gardeck dealt with injury at the end of August and White, according to the Cardinals preseason game broadcast, missed the team’s week in Minnesota to be with his newborn child.

Baker is the only one on the unit who could be considered an NFL star, with his five Pro Bowls. Many of the others have something to prove in 2023.

Jul 27, 2023; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Nick Rallis during training camp at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

Collier’s time with the Seattle Seahawks didn’t go as well as he nor their fans had hoped, so he is in Arizona looking for a fresh restart. Fotu is set to open the season as a starter for the first time in his four-year career. Collins looks poised to have a strong season, but has moved from inside linebacker to outside. Barnes and Woods are newcomers from other teams, Barnes looking to bounce back from injury in 2022 and Woods hoping to finally play regularly on defense and not just on special teams.

“I like everything about the scheme, you know, and we’re still getting used to it, we’re still adjusting as a whole,” Fotu said last week from the team’s two practices against the Minnesota Vikings.

Wilson has been a starter in his first two pro seasons but hasn’t played in every game in those two years. Hamilton has been an underdog his whole career and will be counted on this season. Clark is an untested rookie who impressed in the preseason and in camp, but has to carry that over to games that count.

Leading the group is 30-year-old Nick Rallis, a first-time NFL defensive coordinator who was part of the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2022 NFC champion staff and who is preaching versatility. An example of that is Thompson getting work at cornerback in practice.

“I like the fact that they like me to be versatile here. You know what I mean? I could play little nickel (cornerback), a little free, strong (safety), maybe even a little corner. You know what I mean? So I like the versatility that they have me in this year.”

Thompson hasn’t played cornerback since his college days at Washington State.

“Nickel is a lot more running. It’s a lot more thinking on the field,I feel like, because everything happens so fast,” Thompson said. “So yeah, I’ve been buying in. I feel like to play nickel, you have to be bought in. Otherwise, your thoughts are gonna be all messed up.”

Baker said Rallis’ defense is different than that of last season’s defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph. He wouldn’t give specifics, but it’s a scheme in which Baker feels he can thrive.

“He gives us a window to make some mistakes, but also be within the integrity of the defense. But it’s not just like ‘hey, we have to do it this way or like this or it’s wrong,'” Collins said of Rallis. “He kind of gives you some ways be able to be your own player, adaptability within the defense for the players within it. If the players aren’t exactly working one way, he can adjust things and make it work for everyone to be able to get the job done.”

On a team that could have a seldom-used career backup (Joshua Dobbs) or a rookie (Clayton Tune) as its starting quarterback when the regular season begins on September 10, it seems fair to expect the Cardinals’ defense to have to rise up and help keep the offense in games. That’s how things played out in the team’s two preseason wins, with slow starts on offense and then the defense keeping things close until the offense got things going in the second half.

Denver Broncos running back Samaje Perine (25) is tackles by Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Leki Fotu (95) during a preseason game at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Aug. 11, 2023

Denver Broncos running back Samaje Perine (25) is tackles by Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Leki Fotu (95) during a preseason game at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Aug. 11, 2023

Granted, that didn’t involve the first-team offenses and defenses much. But the Cardinals don’t seem to be set on being a high-octane offense, at least at the start of the season with Kyler Murray set to miss the first four weeks.

“Just try not to have too much defense that’s brand new week to week. I’m not a huge fan of doing that to the players. Because no matter how great it is in your mind, guys need reps to be able to get comfortable and execute things,” Rallis said. “And if it’s something new, you’d better be really convicted going into that week that we’re going to work through this and we’re going to practice it and take the time and it’s worth the investment once we come out on the other end of this thing. So there’s a balance there and you try to get as much in and try to have some foresight on what you want to run during the season.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Who will the Arizona Cardinals line up on defense in Week 1 of NFL season?

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