Statistically, the Arizona Cardinals don't have the worst secondary in the NFL. It just seems that way sometimes.
Untimely big plays against a pair of young cornerbacks and a pair of veteran safeties make the Arizona defensive backs an easy target for criticism. When rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson is beaten on a play, it's there for all to see.
''It's easy to criticize a corner,'' Peterson said after the team practiced on Tuesday, ''but as a defense as a whole, we all have to make plays. We're all to blame - period.''
Now the team, on a four-game losing streak after a season-opening victory over Carolina, will be without free safety Kerry Rhodes for several weeks because of a broken foot. Third-year pro Rashad Johnson will step in and a young secondary will become younger.
Johnson has some extra time to work his way into the mix because the Cardinals have a bye this week. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the team practiced Tuesday and will work out Wednesday, then the players have four days off before returning to work on Monday.
Arizona ranks 21st out of 32 NFL teams in yards allowed through the air, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The Cardinals have allowed 26 passes of 20 yards or more, second only to New England's 32. Eli Manning's shredding of the Arizona defense in two rapid-fire late touchdown drives two weeks ago come to mind, a game the Cardinals led by 10 with five minutes to go only to lose to the New York Giants 31-27.
Then on Sunday, things crumbled on both sides of the ball in a 34-10 loss at previously winless Minnesota.
When Greg Toler went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, the decision was made to go with Peterson, the No. 5 pick overall, at one corner and A.J. Jefferson, a second-year pro who spent his rookie season on the practice squad, at the other.
''It's a tough position to play,'' coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ''You know that there's going to be some growing pains with young guys, but they're working hard at it and that's all you can ask. They're going to be good players for us.''
Peterson said he and Jefferson have stuck together through the struggles.
''Me and A.J, we believe we're definitely getting better each and every week,'' Peterson said. ''It's a long, long, long season. We're just young guys that have been thrown into the fire early. We have a lot of confidence within each other. We have a lot of veteran guys that have been around guys like us. These guys are definitely pulling us along, just letting us know it's a long season, just keep your head up, and the plays will come and go.''
Adrian Wilson, Arizona's four-time Pro Bowl strong safety who turns 32 on Wednesday, was in no mood to talk to reporters on Tuesday.
Johnson, a third-round draft pick out of Alabama in 2009, played in the preseason while Wilson was recovering from a mild tear of the biceps.
''Every day I come to practice and do my job and do what the coaches ask me to do,'' Johnson said.
''During the preseason I had to step in for `A-Dub' when he was down, so I'm just ready to take it and make it work,'' he said.
Defensive end Calais Campbell said the secondary gets too much criticism.
''When they make mistakes, everybody sees,'' Campbell said. ''As a D-line I feel like we can play a lot better. Even though we've shown signs of greatness at times, there are some times we don't do as well. The linebacker corps as well. It's a team game. We all make mistakes. The secondary, I believe in those guys. They make a lot of plays and they've got a tough job. We've got to do something to help them out a little bit more. I feel like we can get a better pass rush, stop the run a little bit more, make it easy for our secondary, and I think we'll be a better team.''