If I’d asked you in August who would lead the league in defensive DVOA through 11 weeks, how many guesses would it have taken before you landed on the Arizona Cardinals? I’m comfortable saying at least 10, and probably more. It would have been reasonable to believe that Arizona would have the worst defense in its own division, but certainly not one of the best in the league. Yet here we are, 10 games into the season, and the Cardinals have ridden that defense to a 6-4 record and face a season-defining game against the Colts on Sunday. The last team to beat the red-hot Panthers? That would be the Cardinals, who dominated the Carolina offense and held Cam Newton to just six points back on October 6.
The pertinent question here seems to be, “How the hell did this happen?” Well, for the most part, things aren’t all that different than they were a season ago. The Cardinals finished sixth in defensive DVOA last year, and they brought back most of the pieces from that team for this year. One major change was at defensive coordinator, where Ray Horton was replaced by former Eagles defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, but schematically, things have been very similar for Arizona. They still play a variety of fronts, which is possible because of the stable of defensive-line bodies they can throw out there at any time.
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide insight into the NFL's 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven't fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
The admission came as a shock to Calais Campbell. Earlier this month, Campbell, the Cardinals’ $55 million defensive end, was engaged in a conversation with one of the team’s offensive linemen. The topic was his teammate’s impressions of the Cardinals’ defensive line before he arrived in Arizona. “He said he heard about [Darnell] Dockett,” Campbell says. “He knew Dockett was a beast. But he didn’t know who I was.” That teammate, whom Campbell politely declined to name, hasn’t been in the league long, but Campbell didn’t make much of an effort to hide his disbelief. “That’s like, ‘Wow really?’ That’s crazy.”
Watching back through this week's games, I did the best I could to single out a few guys whose performances I hadn't yet mentioned this season. Calais Campbell was everywhere in the Cardinals' win. Muhammad Wilkerson is the Jets' only saving grace. Brandon Graham keeps showing why the Eagles traded Justin Babin. Each had one of his better games of the season, but I still couldn't help feeling that it all seemed a bit dishonest.
This post was supposed to be an appreciation for the best in offensive and defensive line play each Sunday, and if that's what it is, then no one really mattered this week except J.J. Watt. I've said just about everything I can about Watt this season, and that's why this time, I'm not saying anything. Here, simply, are the five best moments from Watt's 10-tackle, three-sack Sunday afternoon. Just take it all in, people. We're watching something here.