(Eds: With AP Photos.) By BOB BAUM AP Sports Writer The Arizona Cardinals' defense is well aware of its status as the anointed strength of the franchise.
The players have a bit of swagger to them this training camp, a confidence still mixed with the reality that they have done nothing yet, that all the success of the second half of last year means little if it can't be repeated or improved upon in the coming season.
''Do they have swagger? Yes they do,'' coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ''Is that something that you like to see? Yes, you like to see a team that's confident. But you know you can get into a trap being too confident and not playing as disciplined as you need to play. And you make mistakes and you'll be right back where you started, giving up big plays.''
Whisenhunt believes the leaders of Arizona's defense understand that.
Those leaders include defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, defensive end Calais Campbell, and safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson.
Dockett remembers that all was not rosy for the defense last year.
''I still remember the Minnesota Vikings game, when they thrashed us up and down the field,'' he said. ''When you think about games like that it humbles you down real well. Our biggest thing is to stay humble and keep working. We know what we can do but it don't mean anything what people say.''
Only Green Bay, New Orleans and New England had a better record than Arizona (tied at No. 23 in the AP Pro32) over the last nine games a season ago.
The strong finish followed an awful beginning.
After winning their season opener, the Cardinals dropped six straight as the players struggled mightily to learn the system of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Somewhere around the middle of the season, the defense started to click.
In those final nine games, Arizona ranked third in the league in fewest touchdowns allowed, tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns given up, fifth in passing touchdowns allowed, first in third-down efficiency, tied for third in sacks and second in yards per pass attempt.
Yet Horton reminds his players of how badly they played early last season.
He said that play could have cost the team a playoff berth, and that even with the subsequent improvement, there is no such thing as ''paper champions.''
''Are we better today than we were a year ago? Yeah, we're better.'' Horton said. ''How good are we? I don't know yet. Are we better on paper? Yeah. We haven't played a game yet. We play murderer's row - Hall of Fame Tom Brady, Hall of Fame Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford. We're getting a test.''
One thing for certain, the Cardinals have impressive depth at most defensive positions.
''That's what it is for me,'' Horton said. ''We started with two rookie corners last year. We were trying to find guys to play. Now we are going to release somebody that can play in the NFL. Depth at outside linebacker, depth at nose tackle, depth at safety. I don't know how we're better statistically because we haven't played, but we have better depth and that really is the key to it.''
He mentions David Carter, who can play nose tackle or defensive end, and inside linebacker Reggie Walker, who could be a starter on another team.
Whisenhunt likes the mix of young and old.
The outside linebackers are second-year pro Sam Acho and third-year pro O'Brien Schofield. The inside backers are three-year pro Daryl Washington and 11-year veteran Paris Lenon, who is being pushed by sixth-year pro Stewart Bradley. Up front, there's Dockett, entering his 10th NFL season, and Campbell, with a big new contract following a break out fifth pro season. At nose tackle is third-year pro Dan Williams, slimmed down considerably to 6-3, 314 pounds.
Patrick Peterson returns for his second NFL season at one cornerback spot and the other is a tough battle between four-year veteran Greg Toler, who missed last season with injury, and free agent signee William Gay, second-year pro A.J. Jefferson and rookie Jamell Fleming.
Wilson, the old man of the group in his 13th year, all with the Cardinals, is at strong safety with Rhodes at free safety.
There is, Peterson said, ''a pep in everybody's step.''
''We're trying to pick up where we left off last year,'' Campbell said. ''Our defense, we just have confidence right now.''
The Cardinals play the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Sunday.
Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL