Thursday, October 3, 2013

How Daryl Washington’s return reshapes the NFC West playoff picture

After the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday afternoon, they were of course celebrating the 13-10 win. And why shouldn’t they? The hard-fought victory signified a lot of good things for this Arizona squad. For one, it was a road win across the country (Raymond James is a good 2174 miles away from the Cardinals’ own University of Phoenix Stadium). And, being 2-2 is distinctly better than being 1-3 on the season.

Most notably, with the fourth game of the 2013 season a thing of the past, suspended Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington is no longer suspended linebacker Daryl Washington; he is now Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington, and he’s ready to make up for some lost time.

A healthy linebacker in and of itself is an irreplaceable asset for this Cardinals team given recent circumstances. Week three saw the Cardinals lose three linebackers for the season due to injury in starters Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander, as well as backup Alex Okafor. Rookie Kevin Minter has also been battling injury, further emaciating an already ailing unit.

That’s not to say that veterans Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley haven’t been solid. Quite the opposite, they’ve been nothing short of stellar so far in 2013. Due in large part to their success, the Cardinals run defense unit ranks second lowest in yards allowed per game, and third lowest in yards allowed per carry.

However, that same Cards unit is giving up 266 yards in the air per game in 2013 (21st in the NFL), an obvious downgrade from the 201 they allowed per game last year, fifth lowest in the league. As solid as Brinkley and Dansby have been, the aggression and athleticism of Washington has been sorely missed. One of the most noticeable shortcomings of the Arizona defense has has been the unit’s inability to cover the pass catching tight end.

For example, the two best receiving performances against the Birdgang in 2013 are St Louis’ Jared Cook (7 catches for 141 yards and 2 TDs) and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (9 catches for 134 yards and 2 TDs). A close third is Calvin Johnson (6 catches for 116 yards and 2 TDs), but at 6 foot 5, 236 pounds, he is a tight end for all intents and purposes, and keeping Johnson off the box score is a tall order for any defender in the NFL. Even considering that, D-Wash wouldn’t be expected to cover Megatron, as Arizona has Patrick Peterson for that.

Theoretically, though, Washington is the man to take on the job of covering those thorny tight ends. Last season, with Daryl Washington in the lineup, the Cardinals did not allow an opposing tight end to amass over 75 yards receiving in a game all season. That’s a pretty big deal, considering the Cardinals 2013 campaign included meetings against Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, Kyle Rudolph and two meetings against Vernon Davis. Correlation is not causation, but at 6 foot 2, 238 pounds,

Daryl Washington has the size and ability to contest a tight end in coverage, and the Cardinals can hope that the 2012 trend continues with Washington back in the lineup.

All of this is before mentioning Daryl Washington’s greatest asset: his pass rushing. In 2013, Daryl Washington amassed a whopping nine sacks, most of any NFL inside linebacker. That led the Cardinals, but as I mentioned before, he’s an inside linebacker; he was not asked to blitz or reach the quarterback on every play, which makes nine sacks even more astounding. His production came due to an incredible aptitude at making the play when his name was called, which is something the Cardinals could use more of, as their seven sacks through four games is 27th lowest in 2013.

With 108 total tackles last season (4th highest in the NFL), his all-around defensive game is what makes his return that monumental for this Cardinals team, as it gives defensive coordinator Todd Bowles an incredible amount of flexibility. With Brinkley and Dansby performing as well as they’re performing, Bowles can juggle with the idea of 4-3 looks, so he’ll have his best three linebackers on the field at all times, or even give Daryl Washington a lot of 3-4 playcalls where the Pro Bowler can pin his head back and bull-rush the quarterback.

No matter what the Cardinals coaching staff decides to do, this scary Arizona defense just got a lot scarier, and can compete with the elite units fielded by Seattle and San Francisco. The Seahawks and 49ers better sleep with both eyes open. The Cardinals are gunning for their playoff spots.

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