Who let the dogs out? Arizona Cardinals defense shows promise

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Dennis Gardeck speaks Monday during a news conference following Sunday’s Week 1 loss to the Washington Commanders. “We got dogs in our room,” Gardeck said. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – The Arizona Cardinals might have lost to the Washington Commanders, 20-16, in coach Jonathan Gannon’s debut, but there was reason for optimism from a team that many project to finish with the worst record in the NFL this season.

“We got dogs in our room,” said Arizona Cardinals linebacker Dennis Gardeck.

In fact, Gardeck said it twice, as if to underline a defensive tenacity that provided at least a glimmer of light in what was otherwise a dark opening day for the Cardinals. It was a signal that the Cardinals are buying into Gannon’s hard-nosed, aggressive coaching scheme, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

“I think that it’s a group that has a chip on their shoulder,” Gardeck said of the Arizona defense. “(We are) just tenacious, and everybody wants something out there.”

The defense looked hungry on Sunday, playing with energy, passion and an underdog mentality that radiates throughout the locker room. Nobody embodies those qualities more than Gardeck, who made the club as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and has worked his way into a starting role. Gardeck led the team with two sacks, one of which was a strip sack that rookie outside linebacker Cameron Thomas recovered and took into the end zone for Arizona’s only touchdown of the game.

“(We) all feed off each other. It’s not, ‘Oh, he made a play. I got to get mine now,” Gardeck said. “I’m excited for whoever is making that play. There is a lot of that tenacity when the competition goes from me versus the offense to the defense competing amongst each other for the hardest hit or whoever is getting to the ball first.”

Gannon, who was coordinator of a defense that helped the Philadelphia Eagles reach the Super Bowl last season, prides his defense on its ability to play physically and violently within the rules.

“I don’t put labels on people, but they’re aggressive and they understand their role,” Gannon said of Gardeck and his defensive teammates. “They try to execute and compete.”

Linebacker Zaven Collins was among those who stood out against the Commanders. After the Cardinals traded away former Clemson standout linebacker Isaiah Simmons during the offseason, Collins pounced on the opportunity to leap into a much larger role with the team this season.

Collins constantly disrupted Washington’s offense, recording two assisted tackles, a pass deflection and a leaping pick for the second interception of his career.

With his promising upside, the Cardinals are trusting Collins to take the majority of snaps at one outside linebacker position and he led the club in Washington, playing a team-high 59% of snaps.

Despite offensive struggles, there were a few bright spots on that side of the ball to give Cardinals fans hope for the future. Tight end Zach Ertz and running back James Connor showed they can be focal points of the offense with Ertz emerging as the favorite target of recently signed quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the week one loss. Ertz finished with a team-high six catches on 10 targets. Meanwhile, the veteran Connor ran for 62 yards and caught five passes for eight yards, but the Cardinals totalled just 228 yards of offense.

Dobbs, who was acquired too late to appear in a preseason game, struggled in his Cardinals debut against a tough Commanders defense. While he completed 21 of 30 attempts, most were short completions and resulted in just 132 passing yards. The offense produced only three Matt Prater field goals.

While being in offensive coordinator Drew Petzing’s Arizona system for less than three weeks, Dobbs had little time to get to know the personnel of the team and what Petzing expects from him.

Dobbs only targeted his wide receivers a total of twelve times, a number that needs to increase for the Cardinals to be competitive as the season goes on.

Despite the offensive struggles, Dobbs was happy to be out on the field playing again.

“Just getting out there, getting in the flow of a game, getting in the flow with the guys and the rhythm (and) just getting out there to play ball can definitely (provide) a huge jump and I expect to make a huge jump, especially situationally,” Dobbs said.

Meanwhile, the Arizona defense hopes to play with enough of the passion and tenacity that Gardeck described to carry the Cardinals until the offense finds a rhythm as Arizona prepares for its home opener against the New York Giants on Sept. 17.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.