The Arizona Cardinals defense for the last couple years under former defensive coordinator Ray Horton had become one of the best in the NFL. However, after the firing of the entire coaching staff (Ray Horton included) this offseason, there are now new unanswered questions (concerns) on the defensive side of the football.
After a complete house cleaning during the offseason, Todd Bowles was hired to be their new defensive coordinator. However, now that there is a new man in charge of the defense, there are new questions to be answered.
For instance, will the defense be able to continue (sustain) what they started with Ray Horton? Will Bowles defense look similar to Horton’s 3-4 style of defense? Or will they (eventually) install a 4-3 look on defense? Bowles defensive philosophy (historically) has primarily always been predicated toward the 4-3, schematically.
Furthermore, depending on whether Bowles uses the 3-4 or 4-3 look on defense; do they have enough depth at outside linebacker?
These are all concerns and questions that will need to be answered this year on the football field. However for the sake of this argument, I will attempt to make the case that the Redbirds do in fact have enough depth at outside linebacker.
In my opinion (and it truly is just an opinion), upper management brought in some good solid depth with the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense in mind. As stated in a previous article, by reading the tea leaves, I believe Bowles may start out using primarily the 3-4 defense. However, I believe he will utilize many 4-3 looks (early on) depending on the match ups from week to week.
I believe Bowles will attempt to disguise different (3-4 and 4-3) looks to try to confuse offenses. This should help prevent offenses from getting a gauge on what the defense is doing.
However, in order to be able to have the flexibility to do both, Bowles must have the versatility at outside linebacker and at defensive end in order to do so.
So let’s take a look at the outside linebacker depth so I can demonstrate why I believe the Cardinals do have the depth to play multiple (either) fronts.
While in the 3-4 defensive front, this will require the two outside linebackers to have the versatility to rush the quarterback; as well as be able to back pedal and defend against the pass in some passing situations.
This type of linebacker usually lines up on the outside of the offensive tackles and is usually smaller than a typical defensive end. Yet (outside linebacker) he needs to have the strength, quickness and speed to get to the quarterback and stop the run, as well as be able to defend tight ends and running backs in passing situations.
The players on the current roster (Cardinals) that fit this mold at outside linebacker in the 3-4 are:
Sam Acho, O’Brien Schofield, Lorenzo Alexander and (rookie) Alex Okafor. The outside linebackers who are on the outside looking in to make the roster are: Zack Nash and Tim Fugger. In this alignment, Sam Acho should be the starter on the left side (LOLB) and training camp will decide the starter on the right side. Keep in mind that I can also see Karlos Dansby playing outside linebacker in a pinch, if needed.
In the 4-3 alignment, I believe they brought in Matt Shaughnessy to play defensive end in this alignment and you may also see him play outside linebacker in certain packages (in the 3-4).
Furthermore, I believe they drafted (bigger body) Alex Okafor, because they feel he can play either defensive end (4-3) or outside linebacker (3-4). I also can see Calais Campbell move outside and play a defensive end (4-3 alignment) in certain situations. It will be interesting to see (if they do install 4-3 packages) who would be the starters in this alignment.
In the end, without question, the Redbirds should have more than adequate depth at outside linebacker. Additionally, they should have depth on their roster should they decide to add 4-3 looks to their schemes.
However, the overriding questions that remain are: will the Cardinals continue the progress (on defense) that was made under Ray Horton with new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ or will they regress? Do we finally have a (much-needed) prolific pass rusher at the position (DE, OLB) on the current roster? Will Bowles continue to stay in the 3-4 alignment or will he slowly transition into a 4-3?
These are all questions that will all be answered in a just a few short weeks during training camp.