TEMPE - There are two faces to the Arizona Cardinals defense. The ugly one surrendered 514 yards at New England, the handsome one shut down the Atlanta Falcons in the Cardinals' biggest game of the season.
The Falcons managed just 250 yards in their 30-24 wild card playoff loss to Arizona on Saturday, a season-low 60 on the ground. Michael Turner, the No. 2 rusher in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson, gained 42 yards in 18 carries, an average of just 2.3 yards per attempt.
The Cardinals defense is a bit small by NFL standards but fast. At its worst, it is plagued by missed tackles and missed assignments.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt described his defense's play on Saturday as "very disciplined."
"They played their gaps, they played with good technique, they used their hands, they got off blocks and they talked very well," Whisenhunt said at his Monday news conference. "That was very important, and it goes to every position on the team."
Arizona sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan three times, one by Antonio Smith for a safety. The defense also scored a touchdown when tackle Darnell Dockett disrupted an attempted handoff from Ryan to Turner. The ball popped into the hands of safety Antrel Rolle, who returned it 27 yards for a score.
Ryan was intercepted twice, once by veteran Rod Hood and later by rising star Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for December.
"Instead of having guys trying to individually make plays, we had a bunch of guys that were focused on playing team defense," Whisenhunt said. "That's what we've talked about."
The defense's image had been tarnished with its play late in the season. In a 35-14 home loss to Minnesota on Dec. 14, the Cardinals gave up 396 yards. Adrian Peterson rushed for 165 yards in 28 carries and Tavaris Jackson threw four touchdown passes for the Vikings.
A week later in the snow of New England, things got worse. The lifeless defense barely slowed down the Patriots as Arizona fell behind 41-0 in the third quarter. The Cardinals gave up 183 yards on the ground to New England.
The Cardinals were better in a regular season-ending 34-21 victory over Seattle, but recent history suggested they were ill equipped to handle the Falcons, who brought one of the best running games in the league to Arizona.
"The focus and the discipline definitely was missing in the games that we struggled," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "Now it's do or die, it's win or go home and right now we're up to the challenge."
But Dockett, Smith and Bryan Robinson dominated the line of scrimmage, and the front three benefited from strong play by backups Kenny Iwebema, Gabe Watson and Calais Campbell.
"It was great to have that depth and be able to put those guys in there. That's what saved us in the second half," Whisenhunt said. "Coming out with their guys getting the ball, our guys weren't as tired as maybe they would have been last year because we had more depth."
Rodgers-Cromartie had a team-high nine tackles and three pass deflections to go with his interception. Linebacker Karlos Dansby had six tackles, three for losses.
Next up is a trip to Carolina to face the Panthers on Saturday night in the NFC semifinals. The Cardinals won't have their raucous home crowd this time, but they have played at Carolina before. Arizona lost to the Panthers 27-23 on Oct. 26, the closest Carolina had to a home loss all season.
Hood said the Cardinals were far from perfect against Atlanta and need to be better to upset the Panthers, who opened at 9½-point favorites.
"I thought we played strong but I don't think that was the best we've played," Hood said. "I think we can play a lot better. There's a lot of room for improvement."