The once-shoddy Arizona Cardinals defense looked like a different unit in the playoffs.
The Cardinals tinkered with the alignment of their front seven, which had been vulnerable to the run. In the postseason, the defense became a turnover machine, intercepting nine passes and forcing four fumbles in four games.
Suddenly, a defense that had given up the fifth-most points in the regular season was asserting itself. New defensive coordinator Bill Davis wants to carry that attitude into next season, when the Cardinals will mount their first defense of a championship since 1948.
"We got really good at what we were doing, and it's kind of what we're trying to build off," Davis said after a workout Thursday. "We're not going to do too much, but what we do, we're going to know it inside and out, and we're going to play it fast."
The 43-year-old Davis, the son of a former NFL assistant coach, was promoted from linebackers coach when Ken Whisenhunt fired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast after the season. Even though the defense was instrumental in the Cardinals' unexpected run to the Super Bowl, Whisenhunt decided he needed to make a change.
One reason: the Cardinals allowed 426 points during the regular season — most among playoff teams and only one fewer than their high-powered offense produced.
"What I'm expecting is better production, especially in the red zone and in the points allowed — two areas we were not very good in," Whisenhunt said. "So if we can improve that, if we can force our opponents to less scores or make it tougher on them in the red zone, if we can put up similar numbers that we did offensively last year, it should put us in position to win some games."
Instead of hiring a defensive coordinator, Whisenhunt turned to Davis, who had helped Arizona's linebackers improve in two seasons since Whisenhunt arrived.
Once a ballboy for lengendary coaches Dick Vermeil in Philadelphia and Don Shula in Miami, Davis grew up around the sport. His father, Bill Davis Sr., was a longtime NFL assistant coach.
"He's a very good teacher," Whisenhunt said. "I think you could see that by the way he handled his linebackers. That's something that I was very impressed with. From having known Billy for a number of years and seeing him grow up in this league and what his pedigree is, I was very pleased to get him as a coordinator, to move him into that spot, and I'm happy with what I'm seeing."
Davis came to the desert after two uninspiring years as Mike Nolan's defensive coordinator in San Francisco. The 49ers defense finished among the worst in the NFL in 2005 and 2006, and Davis was dismissed.
Davis said he learned that if he's going to be held accountable, he wants to control the scheme.
"I went in there and I ran Mike Nolan's defense," Davis said. "Mike called most of it, and I was an assistant. I'm coordinating here. I'm running my things and our things and things that I believe in, and I'm fixing them.
"I learned that if you get another shot at this, it's got to be done my way, because ultimately I'll be fired," Davis said.
The Cardinals haven't given Davis many new pieces to work with. They signed free agent cornerback Bryant McFadden from Pittsburgh and selected linebacker Cody Brown in the second round of the draft, safety Rashad Johnson in the third round and cornerback Greg Toler in the fourth round.
Davis said he has changed about a third of the team's defensive package. In an effort to increase pressure on opposing quarterbacks, he's importing some of the things he picked up in a three-year stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1992-94.
But Davis said there's no magic formula, and that the best defenses are molded to fit the lineup. It will also help if the unit remains as healthy as it did a year ago.
"We'll massage that thing to where it fits the players and their talents," Davis said. "It's not about me and my particular scheme or our staff and our scheme. It's about what the players can do."