Cardinals' defense rises to playoff occasion in win over Falcons

Ken Whisenhunt played nine NFL seasons at tight end and spent 10 more as an offensive assistant. He piloted the Pittsburgh SteelersSuper Bowl XL championship offense. And that fascinated Arizona Cardinals owner William V. Bidwill.

Whisenhunt was brought to the desert in January 2007 to build a triumphant offense.

And as quickly as he could bring the defense along, well, that would be a plus.

Whisenhunt began delivering in his first season. The Cardinals were 8-8 and missed the playoffs, but set franchise records in passing touchdowns (32) and scored the second-most points in team history (404).

This season brought a divisional title and more offensive bling. A 9-7 record and the most Cardinals points ever (427). But Arizona allowed 426 points -- only one fewer point than they scored. The Cardinals were singed for more points than 5-11 Oakland (388), 4-11-1 Cincinnati (364) and 4-12 Cleveland (350). They were ripped for 56 points by the Jets in Week 4, for 37 points by the Giants in Week 12, for 48 by the Eagles in Week 13 and for 47 by the Patriots in Week 16.

That is why Arizona's 30-24 home playoff victory over Atlanta was a resounding facelift and uplift for its defense.

It makes the Cardinals germane again as they move into the divisional playoff round.

We know the Cardinals can dial it up with Kurt Warner spreading the ball to an array of play-making receivers. And the Cardinals spawned a running game against the Falcons.

But what they showed on defense was the most promising part of their performance. They made hyped Atlanta running back Michael Turner -- 18 carries, 42 yards, a long run of 13 yards -- a non factor. That is a remarkable accomplishment. Turner had rushed for 1,699 yards this season. He ran for 205 yards in his last game (vs. St. Louis). Only Tampa Bay had held him under 50 rushing yards this season.

The defense forced three turnovers (two picks and a fumble). It held Atlanta to 250 yards of total offense when teams had been averaging 331.5 yards of offense per game on this defense. And bottom line vs. Atlanta in the Cardinals playoff opener: Each team scored two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. Atlanta gained a field goal.

But it was Arizona's defensive scores -- a 27-yard fumble return for a score by cornerback Antrel Rolle and a safety produced by defensive end Antonio Smith -- that defined the difference.

A general manger from the NFC West, where the Cardinals live, explained, requesting anonymity: "It used to be when you played them it was all about winning a shootout game with scoring in the 30s and 40s. But their defense, and especially their pass rush, is coming on now. They seem to have figured out with the offense they have that if they can win the turnover battle, they are going to be very tough to beat. They get a little exotic at times on both sides of the ball but this is a simple game sometimes; make the fewest mistakes and force as many as you can. I have always admired Adrian Wilson and Bertrand Berry on that defense. They have been there a long time on bad teams and have played hard. Now they get to reap some benefits of success."

Wilson, a safety, made four tackles.

Berry, an end, made three tackles and a sack.

This Cardinals defense has had its moments this season. There were the big hits and the big turnovers forced in a huge victory over Dallas back in October. There were other instances where it looked like the defense Whisenhunt is building, that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is guiding, could become a force.

But the Cardinals saved their best defensive football for the playoffs. They showed:

» That the run defense can be disciplined and dynamic. And physical.
» That they possess the team speed to handle cutback runs and those on the edges.
» That they can handle bootleg passes by applying immediate pressure deep into the backfield that forces quarterbacks on that play to scramble much more than they prefer.
» That their blitz packages apply chaotic pressure and that their defensive personnel are active and athletic enough to score touchdowns.

Arizona clinched its division early and was accused of sleep-walking through its late regular-season action. Whisenhunt preached to his team that it was time to return to its fundamentals and to passionate play. Pendergast asked the same of his defense. It delivered.

Wilson and Berry are anchors. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who forced the fumble Rolle returned for a score, is a massive force. Linebacker Karlos Dansby is as good in pursuit as he is in the trenches. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has grown quickly in knowledge and in contribution.

The Cardinals now need this defense to take them on the road in the playoffs and elevate the effort and results. Arizona is 0-5 in road games this season outside of its division.

The Arizona defense possesses the team speed and desire to complement its frisky offense. And the way it opened the playoffs gives the Cardinals increased hope.

"I was really proud of the way our defense showed today," said Rod Graves, the Cardinals general manager, via telephone after his team beat the Falcons. "We knew we had to win at least two areas of the three in offense, defense and special teams and I thought our defense gave us a leg up and a big start in that goal. Our guys on defense had that attitude of invincibility and durability. I give a lot of credit to Ken and Clancy and our entire staff for the excellent job of preparation. We practiced this week like a playoff team getting ready for a playoff game.

"Ken has always called us a work in progress. Getting to the next round of the playoffs means one more step in that, especially for our defense."

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