(AP) — To find the main reason the Arizona Cardinals have won four of their last five games, look to the defense, where the players are getting a grip on the scheme brought in by new coordinator Ray Horton.
They've allowed a total of five touchdowns, just one on the ground, in 63 possessions by the opposition. That compares with 20 TDs, 11 on the ground, allowed through the first seven games, when the team lost six in a row after a season-opening win over Carolina.
Horton, who brought the Pittsburgh system from his former job as the Steelers' defensive backfield coach, said the Cardinals still have a very long way to go. He figures it will be the middle of next season before the team has it down pat. He is, however, able to add new wrinkles each week now.
"We did some things totally different last week and it confused Dallas," Horton said. "I know it did because I could see it. I could see it when it was happening. Then we'll keep adding things in and the players will start going 'Wow.' I think they'll get more confident."
With no offseason to install the new system, the Cardinals players struggled with the new concepts. Even though the defense remained a 3-4 set, the assignments were far different. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett talked in training camp about having to study more than he'd ever studied before.
"To me, Dock was the last one to buy into it," Horton said. "Whether he found out I wasn't going to change, I wasn't going to accept things. You're going to do it this way. I think he's bought in and understands. Calais (Campbell) is playing well and getting sacks so I think he understands 'Maybe if I do what they say, I'll get mine, too.'"
Dockett had nothing bad to say about Horton when asked about him this week.
"Ray is a good guy, man," Dockett said. "He's very patient, don't yell. He treats you like an adult. That's one thing I admire about him."
Horton brings credentials as a player as well as a longtime NFL assistant. He has been an assistant in the league for 17 years. Before that, Horton played defensive back in the league for 10 seasons. He has been instrumental in nurturing first-round draft pick Patrick Peterson, who because of a training camp injury to starting cornerback Greg Toler found himself assigned to the opponent's top receiver each week.
"Coach Horton, he's a players' coach," Peterson said. "He definitely believes in players putting in their opinion about the game plan. He's the type of guy that everybody on this defense loves playing for. He's a straightforward guy."
Horton calls Peterson "a home run" as a draftee.
"He's going to be very good," Horton said. "He's going to be dominant in the league."
He praised two other rookies. Outside linebacker Sam Acho, Horton said, is exceeding expectations. Nose tackle David Carter had a mid-season swoon but is coming on strong again, with more playing time following the season-ending injury to Dan Williams.
Inside linebacker Daryl Washington, in his second season, could be the defense's best player. The young cornerback corps of Peterson and A.J. Jefferson has struggled, as expected. Richard Marshall has come in to help out and the youngsters are improving.
At safety, Adrian Wilson has picked up his play after being slowed by a biceps injury in training camp. Safety Kerry Rhodes has been out for six weeks with a broken bone in his left foot, but Rashad Johnson has come in and performed admirably.
"We just have a ton of young guys," Horton said, "and I like where we're going."
The defense will be counted on to keep things under control Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.
Horton still thinks about how the defense failed to stop the opponents early in the season to preserve late leads. It cost the team a chance to contend with the 49ers in the division, he said.
Stats back him up. In those first seven games, the Cardinals gave up a whopping 62 plays that were at least 20 yards passing or 10 yards rushing. In the last five games, that number drops to 22.
"I think we're starting to gel as a team," Horton said. "We're not there at all. We're still making a lot of mistakes. But we're getting closer."