Originally Published: January 30, 2018 11:23 p.m.
TEMPE — Al Holcomb followed his boss Steve Wilks from Carolina to Arizona and takes over a Cardinals defense that could be the team’s biggest strength next season.
And it will be the coordinator Holcomb that runs the defense, the new head coach says.
“Al is going to call the defense,” Wilks said at Holcomb’s introductory news conference on Tuesday. “I believe in hiring coaches and allowing those guys to do their job.”
But don’t expect Holcomb to stray much from the Panthers’ blueprint, which he and Wilks called “our DNA.”
“Playing with balance and effort,” Holcomb said. “Playing smart. Taking the ball away and finishing.”
Holcomb was linebackers coach this season at Carolina, with Wilks the defensive coordinator. For four years before that, the two were together on the Panthers’ staff, with Wilks serving as secondary coach. Holcomb was at the top of the list for the defensive coordinator job once Wilks was hired as Cardinals head coach.
“Al was one of the first guys I wanted to bring with me,” Wilks said.
The Cardinals finished sixth in the NFL overall in defense this season. Their coordinator for the past four seasons, James Bettcher, has been hired as defensive coordinator by new New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur.
Holcomb inherits a defense that includes All-Pro outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who led the NFL with a franchise-record 17 sacks, and one of the game’s best cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson, who had two interceptions in Sunday’s Pro Bowl.
The Cardinals were known to blitz a lot, but the Panthers did it even more. So don’t expect that to change, although the exact strategy will depend on the opponent.
“We’re going to try and create negative plays,” Holcomb said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to do things based on what we need to do to win the game and if it’s by pressuring, we’ll pressure. If it’s by playing front coverage, we’ll play front coverage. It’s just going to come down to who the opponent is.”
Arizona is expected to have two of the NFL’s best edge rushers in Jones and Markus Golden, who led the Cardinals in sacks with 12½ in 2016 but tore an ACL against San Francisco on Oct. 1 and missed the rest of 2017.
“Philosophically, we’re going to line up and stop the run every week and that’s going to be the main objective,” Holcomb said, “but we know that this league has some great quarterbacks in it. You have to have the element of being able to rush the passer, which those guys do. We’re going to put them in position and try to continue to allow them to have success, more than anything. I think it’s a great starting point for us. ... Those guys are pretty special.”
At Carolina, Holcomb helped develop the talented linebacker tandem of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Although the Panthers played a base 4-3 defense and the Cardinals were a 3-4, there won’t be that much difference in technique and scheme under the new regime, with defenses regularly using their “nickel” package to bring in an extra defensive back, the new coaches said.
“We have to evaluate what the personnel does best and obviously, there will be some subtleties and some subtle differences in some of the things that we do,” Holcomb said, “most importantly probably the terminology more than anything.”
Wilks said his familiarity with Holcomb probably will allow him to spend more time with the offense and its coordinator, Mike McCoy.
“Al and I know one another,” Wilks said. “I know exactly, pretty much, what he’s thinking because he’s been under me this past year. We worked together the last five years. So he understands the expectations of the defense, what it should look like, our philosophy. I don’t feel like I need to really to spend a lot of time in that room.”
Wilks also introduced new special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. Rodgers was special teams coordinator the past three seasons in Chicago.
There were special teams breakdowns in Arizona periodically over the past few seasons, but coach Bruce Arians stayed loyal to his coordinator, Amos Jones.
Wilks promised to keep a close eye on the special teams aspect of the game.
“We’re going to make sure that we put the emphasis on special teams,” he said. “You asked a question earlier about the history of special teams around here. It’s not going to take a backseat to what we’re trying to do.”