Cardinals' defense finds its game after pressing 'reset' button

TAMPA, Fla. -- After the Arizona Cardinals' grisly five-week stretch late in the season, their opponents could have cashed in bonus rewards for the frequent-flyer miles of yardage -- and points -- they hung on the reeling team. Not even the NFL's version of the old Loyola Marymount college basketball offense could make up the deficit woes that bankrupted the Cardinals' self-esteem.

Arizona defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast wasn't directly thrown on the hot seat because coaches and players at every position were under fire. However, already playing wingman to the coaches of a dynamic offense and having your unit surrender 167 points in four losses in a five-week span didn't leave any room for comfort.

Neither did the reality that Pendergast was one of two assistants retained from the previous staff by Ken Whisenhunt when he was hired in 2007 (assistant defensive backs coach Rick Courtright also stayed). Pendergast wasn't one of Whisenhunt's guys, although he was trustworthy enough to make it to and through a second season with the new head coach.

Wisely, Pendergast, hired by Dennis Green in 2004, didn't follow the old cliché of staying the course, hoping his unit, which had played well for most of the season, would break out of a slump.

"We went back and hit the reset button," Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith said. "For a minute there, we lost our identity, and it was getting pretty rough, especially losing the games the way were losing games. Everybody focused in and bought into what we were doing and left egos at the door."

Pendergast didn't change much schematically, although he did install some new personnel packages, gave rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie more man coverage responsibilities and used different players -- particularly pass rushers -- in more creative ways. What Pendergast did, as did most of the other coaches on the staff, was that he re-emphasized technique and fundamental responsibility.

"He made 30 minutes of extra film mandatory, 15 minutes extra in individual, where we worked on technique throughout the season," Smith said. "Over a long season, that starts going away. You start losing that, and you get out of your technique. We were out there winging it."

Since hitting the "reset" button, the Cardinals have generated a playoff-best 12 turnovers in their three playoff games en route to winning the NFC championship and earning a berth in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, mind you, are the benchmark of defense, tops in the NFL in the regular and postseasons. That Pendergast has to try to measure up against that unit and play in the shadows of the Cardinals' high-flying offense is humbling. Yet, that's what the mild-mannered defensive coordinator is about.

It's the message he preached to his unit when too many players were blowing assignments in order to make plays, the root cause of the defensive breakdowns late in the regular season. Sacrifice and do your job, and everything else will take care of itself, Pendergast preached.

"I enjoy watching the players have success," Pendergast said of his unit's play in the playoffs. "We try to put them in position where we're flexible defensively. We try to put them in best position to maximize their strengths. You can see that coming to fruiting as of late. It's gratifying."

The low-key Pendergast, 41, flies under the radar of most of what's going on with the Cardinals. He admits he has had confrontations with players much like the highly visible shouting match between wide receiver Anquan Boldin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. It's just that the television cameras didn't really seem to pay attention. Maybe it's him or the overlooked defense.

Pendergast has Pro Bowl players on his side of the ball -- defensive tackle Darnell Dockett ('07), defensive end Bertrand Berry ('04) and strong safety Adrian Wilson ('06, '08) -- but quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Boldin cast a long shadow.

The Cardinals' defense just takes solace that it has shut down standout running backs Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Brian Westbrook in the playoffs. The unit made enough plays to limit Matt Ryan, rattle Jake Delhomme and snuff Donovan McNabb at crunch time in the postseason.

"I don't know how the roller-coaster ended up going so far underground, but it ended up that way," Smith said of the swoon late in the regular season. "Clancy just went into his office to find a way to fix the defense, and that's what he did. You see the way the defense is run now -- it's like equal opportunity.

"We don't try to make a spectacular play and sometimes over-compensating. Now, we're all playing on the same level, same speed, and when that happens, it's hard to stop our defense."

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