- Associated Press - Thursday, December 31, 2015

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - Much has been written about the flashy, big-play offense of the Arizona Cardinals.

But that defense isn’t too shabby either.

“It’s a pleasure and a blessing,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said, “to be on a team that is so deep at every position and also on a team that cares about each other as much as we do.”

The defense goes into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Seattle after a dominant performance against Green Bay last weekend.

The Cardinals sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times en route to a 38-8 victory that clinched a first-round playoff bye.

“It was a lot of fun,” safety Tony Jefferson said, “especially when you can do it against a quarterback like that who’s most likely going to be in the Hall of Fame. That was pretty cool.”

Now the Cardinals face the elusive Russell Wilson.

“That’s another guy you’ve got to be really smart with how you rush,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “You’ve got to be great with your rush lanes. You’ve got to plaster in coverage. One thing Russell is doing really well is he’s getting the ball out of his hand really well. But he still has that same threat of being able to tuck it and extend plays.”

The Arizona defense was something of a question entering the season because coordinator Todd Bowles had left to become head coach of the New York Jets. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians promoted the 37-year-old Bettcher, who had been outside linebackers coach for the past two seasons.

Bettcher said that from the first offseason meeting, the stated goal was to “be a relentless team.”

“When I see guys play that hard,” Bettcher said, “and play with that much love for the game and for each other and for the organization they play for, it means a lot to me personally. So there’s a lot of respect between me and those guys.”

Arians promoted from within because he wanted to maintain the aggressive, 3-4 defensive scheme. Bettcher often sends one or more players on a blitz of the quarterback, relying on his talented defense to match up with receivers man-on-man.

The result is a defense that ranks fifth in the NFL, allowing 319.5 yards per game. That’s 100 yards less than the Cardinals offense averages per game.

Dwight Freeney, signed in early October, matched his career high with three sacks last week and was named NFC defensive player of the week. Calais Campbell, the 300-pound heart of the defensive line, had 2 ½ sacks.

Justin Bethel intercepted a Rodgers pass in the end zone.

Rodgers fumbled twice and Arizona returned both for touchdowns. The first was a 34-yard return by 6-4, 314-pound Cory Redding, who tossed would-be tackler Eddie Lacy out of the way en route to the end zone. Jerraud Powers returned the other fumble five yards for a score.

Of the 19 Arizona players to score touchdowns this season, six play defense.

The big game against Green Bay came despite the absence of the two players who had been starting at safety. Tyrann Mathieu is out for the season with a torn ACL and Rashad Johnson has a sprained ankle that could sideline him against Seattle, too.

Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, elevated from the practice squad on Dec. 8, moved into the safety spots, with Powers sliding into Mathieu’s nickel corner position and Bethel starting at corner.

“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Jefferson said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can play different spots.”

Peterson is having a terrific season as a shutdown cornerback, although he doesn’t show up much in the statistics because quarterbacks avoid throwing in his vicinity.

Bettcher orchestrates it all from the sideline and he’s had to learn to curb his emotions.

“Through thick and thin - when it’s good, when it’s bad, you’ve got to stay calm, cool and collected,” he said. “I’m an emotional guy anyway and sometimes I have to check myself to make sure I’m not riding the roller coaster with the guys. I’ve got to be the calming voice on the sideline.

“That’s a role you learn how to do as you do it. It’s not something any sage words of wisdom or advice can prepare you for. It’s just something you’ve got to do.”


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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