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'Moneybacker' Deone Bucannon key to Cardinals D

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The 10-2 Arizona Cardinals have been lifted to first place in the NFC West by a top-ranked offense and a league-best secondary.

While Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tyrann Mathieu and revitalized All-Pro cover corner Patrick Peterson provide the star power on defense, 2014 first-round pick Deone Bucannon has emerged as the glue holding the run-stuffing front seven and ballhawking secondary together.

The Cardinals had every intention of leaving the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Bucannon at safety, but realized this offseason that they were well-stocked at the position with Mathieu, Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson.

With former Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington unavailable due to an indefinite suspension, ex-Falcons thumper Sean Weatherspoon was signed to start next to Kevin Minter. When Weatherspoon went down with a hamstring injury in training camp, the coaches decided to tinker with Bucannon at inside linebacker.

That plan has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations.

Now labeled "$ILB" -- or moneybacker -- on the Cardinals' depth chart, Bucannon leads the NFL's fourth-ranked defense with 80 tackles.

"I've heard of something like it, but I've never seen a moneybacker," Bucannon said of his position switch in late October. "Usually it's a rover or a landshark or something like that."

Asked Bucannon's position in his hybrid defense, coordinator James Bettcher has essentially explained, "He is where he plays."

The defensive backs still claim him as one of their own.

"He's still one of us," Peterson said, via the Associated Press, in October. "Pregame, he still warms up with the DBs. He tries to stay as close as possible to us because he feels that he's still one of the DBs, and we definitely treat him that way."

Bucannon's speed, physicality, instincts and the versatility to shift between linebacker and strong safety have been integral to a run defense allowing just 89.0 yards per game.

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"I've never seen anything like it," safety Rashad Johnson told NFL Media's Steve Wyche this week. "The only thing close was in my rookie year when Adrian Wilson would slide into the box in nickel and dime packages. For someone to do that full time shows how special he is.

"This also allows us to get our best players on the field. They found a way to do it, and Deone makes it special."

If the best Arizona team in history makes it to the Super Bowl in two months, Bucannon will join Mathieu, Carson Palmer, Chris Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and coach Bruce Arians as the most fascinating story lines to unpack in Santa Clara.

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