Defense Shines Under James Bettcher

There is a sign that hangs in the main defensive meeting room at the Cardinals’ Tempe complex, listing the three things new defensive coordinator James Bettcher wanted to emphasize when he met with his team for the first time back in April.

“Relentless Effort” was one. “Communication” was the next. “Technique” was the third. All are dear to Bettcher’s philosophy.

What isn’t listed, and what has turned the storyline of Bruce Arians handing the reins of his defense to a relatively inexperienced 36-year-old Bettcher after Todd Bowles left to coach the New York Jets into a non-story, was “Good Players.”

The marriage of Bettcher, who had been the outside linebackers coach before Arians promoted him, and his unit has been a good one. The Cardinals are coming off a dominating defensive performance, racking up nine sacks and returning two fumbles for touchdowns inTyrann Mathieu.

The Cardinals are tied for third in the NFL for touchdowns allowed. They are fifth in total defense (yards allowed) and tied for fifth in scoring defense. They are fourth in rushing defense and tied for seventh in passing defense. They are second in takeaways with 33, and tied for first with six defensive touchdowns.

Bettcher’s reaction: “I didn’t play a down. This is our players’ defense. When you go from good to great, it has to be player-driven.”

That didn’t mean there wasn’t going to be trepidation when Bettcher came on. The players knew him – he already spoke in front of the entire defense at times under Bowles – and he was groomed to eventually replace Bowles.

There was still a natural transition, though, something aided by the fact Bettcher was in-house, and that he still had a nice depth chart with which to work.

“It wasn’t like he was teaching a new defense to a bunch of new faces,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “It was a bunch of guys that knew what to do and when to do it. It was a matter of us bringing him along rather than him bringing us along.”

It also helped that the players realized Arians had trust in Bettcher, and the players already trusted Arians.

“With the group we had, the type of team we had, it says a lot of the trust (Bettcher) has gained with us and vice versa,” defensiveFrostee Rucker said. “There’s never questioning the calls. We trust in the guy. He’s doing a phenomenal job. He’s putting us in position to make plays. It’s not too complicated. He had a good nucleus of things to work with with Todd’s old defense. He has tweaked a lot of things.”

The terminology and playbook hasn’t changed a lot, although defensive  tackle Calais Campbell said what Bettcher does in-game is “very different.”

The numbers are up across the statistical board. Last year, the Cardinals were fifth in scoring defense, but 24th in total defense, 29th in pass defense and 13th in rushing defense.

“He likes to blitz even more than coach Bowles does,” Campbell said. “But we like his style. He knows what kind of players he has.”

Arians, who heard the doubt floating around outside when Bettcher was named in February, shrugged it off then and dismisses it now.

“It’s obvious the job (Bettcher) did and I knew he would,” Arians said. “Because again, I don’t listen to all the noise.”

There has been a learning curve. Bettcher, for instance, used to be in the coaching booth during games, and now he’s descended to the sideline to be the calming voice on his side of the ball while the team makes in-game adjustments.

“Sometimes I’ve got to check myself, make sure I’m not riding the emotional roller coaster with the guys,” Bettcher said.

The emotion is for later, when he’s watching the tape, and he sees those three core elements – especially the most important “relentless effort” – coming alive on the defense he oversees.

“That’s what is making this team we have special,” Bettcher said. 

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