FLAGSTAFF — The Arizona Cardinals can score. Everybody knows that. The defensive prowess, though, is another matter.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt's dissatisfaction with the team's penchant for giving up big plays and way too many points led to the firing of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast after the team's run to the Super Bowl.
"We gave up more touchdown passes than anybody in the league," Whisenhunt said. "If you look at our season last year there were some games where we played very well defensively and there were other games where we gave up 56 points and 47 points."
New coordinator Bill Davis, promoted from linebackers coach, is making a few schematic changes in training camp, but the main emphasis is on consistency and attention to detail.
"It's going to be an aggressive style, attacking. They're going to have to adjust to us," Davis said. "There's a lot of similarities and there's some subtle changes. Hopefully what (the fans) will notice is the points on the scoreboard at the end of the game is down."
The Cardinals ranked 28th, out of 32 teams, in points allowed during the 2008 regular season at 26.6 per game. Only Kansas City, Denver, St. Louis and Detroit were worse. Arizona's 36 passing touchdowns allowed were nine more than any other team in the NFL.
Davis expects more from a group that includes such big-play standouts as safety Adrian Wilson, linebacker Karlos Dansby, tackle Darnell Dockett and a rising young star in cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
"The goal is to make big plays and not give up the big ones, the easy ones," Davis said. "You know we have a lot of talent on this defense, and if we make teams go the field — first down, second down, third down — and they have to have 10-, 12-, 15-play drives, they won't get in the end zone. It's just the cheap, easy ones that we have to get off of."
Whisenhunt said it's a matter of "having the right guys in the right places."
"Not always is it going to be your high-profile guys that are making the plays," he said. "Sometimes they have to be unselfish and hit the right gap in order to eat up two blockers to get somebody else free."
The defense needs no better reminder than the Super Bowl, where Pittsburgh trailed 23-20 with 2½ minutes to go and had the ball on its 22, then was pushed back to the 12 by a holding penalty.
The Steelers swiftly moved downfield from there, getting a 40-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes to the Arizona 6. That was followed by Holmes' TD catch on the sideline with 35 seconds left to give Pittsburgh the victory.
"It sticks in everybody's mind," Dansby said of that winning drive. "That's hard to get past. You dream all your life of getting to that moment, and to have it slip through your fingers like that is devastating."
It was, however, a learning experience.
"You know what to do next time," Dansby said, "how to prepare for that moment. That's what we're doing right now is preparing for that moment again."
Arizona's most significant offseason free agent acquisition was the signing of cornerback Bryant McFadden from the Steelers.
"He's a true veteran leader who brings consistency, professionalism, talent," Davis said. "He's very steady, he's very consistent. He's one of those guys that doesn't give up those big plays. We're counting on him to come out there and be a real calm and steady influence on the rest of the secondary."
The Cardinals must replace defensive end Antonio Smith, who went to Houston as a free agent. The job will fall to young Calais Campbell, a second-round draft pick last year out of Miami.
"We had a need and we're just lucky that we felt like we have a talented young player that's growing into that position," Whisenhunt said. "But there's no substitute for experience. He didn't get a lot of reps last year in games so he's getting a crash course this year and seems to be handling it well."
This is Davis' second stint as coordinator. He held the job with San Francisco in 2005-06 and was an assistant coach with the New York Giants, Atlanta, Green Bay, Cleveland, Carolina and Pittsburgh in his career.
"We've put in a couple of hard days' work," he said of the training camp, so far. "There's really no focus on anything but putting our head down and work, more details and more techniques. I'm really a stickler for technique and knowing your assignment and eliminating mistakes.
"Just do your job and do it well, the little things. A lot of little things done well make a good defense."