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TEMPE, Ariz. – Halfway through the season, the Arizona Cardinals defense has been good, occasionally great, and big defensive end Calais Campbell says the best is yet to come.
The Cardinals (4-4) have established an aggressive identity in the first year under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, with an attacking style designed to force turnovers and disrupt the quarterback.
Coach Bruce Arians said his players have the mentality of defending "every blade of grass." Twice in a loss at San Francisco, then again against Atlanta on Sunday, the Cardinals turned the ball over deep in opposition territory only to have the defense hold a team to no more than a field goal.
Bowles traces the defense's arrival to a Thursday practice just before Arizona faced the Detroit Lions in Week 2.
"We kind of figured out as coaches who we are and what we are and what we have," he said. "We try to play to their strengths, and I think around that they advanced pretty good."
The Cardinals have given up some chunks of yards at times, but they rank near the league lead in interceptions, takeaways, yardage lost on sacks and stopping the run.
"I think we want to be aggressive, we want to be physical," Campbell said. "I don't feel like we're where we want to be 100 percent yet. We can still get better, which is scary because we're playing pretty good."
A few defensive breakdowns stand out.
After playing a strong defensive game at San Francisco, the Cardinals couldn't stop the 49ers, Frank Gore in particular, in an 18-play, 89-yard drive that consumed 9½ minutes before resulting in the game-clinching touchdown.
Five days later at home against Seattle, the Cardinals allowed two early touchdowns before settling down. Later in the game, outside linebacker John Abraham twice jarred the ball loose from quarterback Russell Wilson to set up Arizona scores.
Harassing quarterbacks has become a defensive trademark.
In a 22-6 home victory over Carolina, the Cardinals intercepted Cam Newton three times and sacked him a career-worst seven. Inside linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby each had two sacks and an interception in that game.
Then came the 27-13 win over Atlanta on Sunday.
Matt Ryan, who had three interceptions in the first six games of the season, threw four against the Cardinals. He was sacked four times.
Campbell and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett spent all day on the Falcons side of the line of scrimmage, Arians said.
The offense finally chipped in on Sunday, too.
Most of the early season, the defense was counted on to keep the game close while the offense struggled to grasp the concepts of Arians' system.
Going into a bye this week, Arizona is tied for third in the league in takeaways with 19 — Seattle has 21 and Kansas City 20. The Cardinals are tied for third in interceptions with 12. Denver and Seattle each have 13.
"We've got guys that are athletic and go after the ball," Bowles said. "It's not just one guy. There's Pat (Peterson), there's Tyrann (Mathieu), there's Daryl, there's Abraham."
Arizona is the only team in the NFL with at least seven players who have recorded multiple takeaways this season — Peterson has three interceptions, Washington has two interceptions and a fumble recovery, Campbell has two fumble recoveries, Matt Shaughnessy two fumble recoveries, Dansby an interception and fumble recovery, Rashard Johnson two interceptions and Mathieu two interceptions.
Sunday marked the fourth time in franchise history, and first in a decade, that the Cardinals had four sacks and four interceptions in a game.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals are shutting down the run with some regularity, Gore's big drive and a few Marshawn Lynch rambles notwithstanding. The Falcons rushed for 27 yards, averaging 1.9 per play, leaving the Cardinals fifth in the league in run defense at 88.3 yards per game.
Bowles, of course, sees plenty of things still to be worked on in the extra practices of bye week.
"Get better at zone drops and communication, and just formation recognition of plays," he said. "We've got another eight games to go so we've got to get a lot better if we want to get to the playoffs."
Seriously, the playoffs are a possibility.
The Cardinals have victories over wild-card contenders Detroit and Carolina and are at home against Houston after the bye then play at Jacksonville. That leaves a 6-4 record a distinct possibility heading to the season's stretch run.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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