Interview with Calais Campbell, DE Arizona Cardinals

| July 19, 2011

To pass the time and stay productive during the NFL lockout, Calais Campbell interned with Will Farrell at FunnyOrDie.com. While that’s certainly impressive, the prototypical 3-4 defensive end has also been busy improving his production on the field in each of his first three seasons in the NFL after being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft.
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Unfortunately, the success of the Cardinals’ defense hasn’t correlated with his individual success on the field. According to Calais, that’s going to change as soon as the defense is able to get on the field and work together to build chemistry.
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I spent some time talking with Calais about the Cards’ 3-4 scheme, the linebacking group, and the current quarterback situation.
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Steve Wyremski (SW): How’s the off season going? What have you been up to?

Calais Campbell (CC): I’ve just been working out, traveling a little bit, and doing charity stuff. Trying to do a little bit of the Hollywood stuff and work myself into the Hollywood industry. I hope to be in the movies one day.
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SW: [Explain PFF]. We recently wrote an article called Three Years of Pass Rushing Productivity: Interior Defensive Linemen. We took sacks, hits, and hurries over the number of snaps you played. In 2010, you ranked as the 17th best interior lineman in the NFL rushing the passer and, over the past three years, we ranked you as the 14th best. What’d you think of that article when you saw it?

CC: It was interesting because I always wondered where I’d fall and where other people would fall. I didn’t know it was possible to figure out that stat. I thought it was interesting how you created a special pass rushing stat. It was kinda cool that I’m on the list … I wish I was a little higher though. It’s just more motivation to go a little harder.
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SW: Based on that article, it’s clear that you’re successful in the pass rush out of the 3-4 defense. What do you attribute that pass rushing success to?

CC: Good coaching. Ron Aiken, our defensive line coach, does a good job putting us through a lot of pass rush drills so I feel comfortable on the field. I think I’m more of a pass rusher on the inside than anything else. I’m a little bit bigger D-end, but a smaller D-tackle weight wise and size wise. I’m more of a natural pass-rusher. So when I go inside, a lot of guys aren’t used to going against guys who are good with their hands.
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SW: Is there a specific technique you use more often than others in rushing the passer? Whether it be the swim move, bull rush. Anything that you use that you’re more successful with?

CC: Yeah, I think my best move, because I’m already tall, is the swim move. It works for me. I try to bull rush and try to use a lot of different moves, but the swim move has always naturally been my best move. I try not to think about it and just react to what the offensive lineman gives me because that’s when I’m at my best, but when I watch myself on film it’s my swim move more than anything else.
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SW: I don’t know if you’ve ever read or seen the book Take Your Eye Off the Ball by Pat Kirwan, but in that book he talks about the prototypical 3-4 DE. He names you as one. He says that between your size and your long arms, that makes you a prototypical 3-4 DE. Would you agree with that?

CC: Yeah. I feel like with my size and the weight I became, that I can do well at that position. Every team uses it a little different, though. The way we use it with the Cardinals works well. We don’t really use a 2-gap. I don’t know if I’m a great 2-gapper. I can be decent at it, but we play gap control. Sometimes we call a 2-gap when the offensive lineman controls what gap we have by the way he moves and the linebacker plays off of us. That allows me to be good at what I do.
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SW: I want to talk a little bit about the Arizona scheme that you mention there. As you know, typically a 3-4 DE really sacrifices himself for the sake of the linebacker play and occupy as much of the offensive line as possible and not necessarily penetrate the backfield. Is that truly your role in the Cardinals’ scheme to just sacrifice yourself for the sake of the linebackers?

CC: It really depends on the package. We have packages where the linebackers make all the plays and all we do is use up as many of the [offensive] lineman as we can. Some packages are built for us to get up field and penetrate. It really just depends on the package we’re in. In the 3-4, our job is really to keep the offensive lineman off the linebackers so they can make the play. There are packages where they let us go free, though. Darnell Docket plays across from me and he’s a beast. He’s got a penetrator-type mentality.
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SW: On the flipside, 4-3 DEs are obviously more pass rushers who need speed and power to play that position. If at some point in the future, say hypothetically despite how unlikely, the Cardinals switch to a 4-3 or you found yourself in a situation where you were playing for a team with a 4-3 scheme, could you play the 4-3 DE spot or would you move inside to play defensive tackle?

CC: Naturally, I’ve always played the true 4-3 DE. That’s what I played in college. I thought I was effective at it. It really comes down to the work ethic and getting my body back in shape to be able to go off the edge. You need that quick burst to the edge. I’m not really the fastest DE, but I have a good first step. That’s what you need to come off the edge as a true 4-3 DE.
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SW: How difficult was that switching from a 4-3 DE at the University of Miami and then you come to the NFL and you’re in a 3-4 scheme? Was there much of a transition to learn how to be a 3-4 DE?

CC: Yeah, it’s a huge difference in the way you play. The way I get off the ball and use my hands changes tremendously. You have to get your hands off the offensive lineman a lot quicker. When you’re playing on the edge you have a lot of protection outside. When you play inside and go in the trenches, there are so many different blocks you can get so it’s harder against the run … and the pass. It was a big adjustment for me.

After a year and a half and working on it every day in practice, it started clicking for me and I feel like I’m doing a good job now. It’s definitely still an adjustment, especially because I’m so tall. When you’re inside, it’s easier for the guards and centers to get underneath you, so I have to make sure I stay lower. My ability to play all over the D-line makes me a better player. I can play from the 1-technique all the way to the 9-technique. If you watch Cardinal games you’ll see me in a lot of techniques, but I play more inside than I do out.
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SW: [Discuss PFF in more detail]. Looking at our game-by-game breakdown of your play in 2010, your first four games of the season you seemed to struggle a little bit and your game against San Diego was your roughest of the year; we rated it a -4.6. We thought your play against the run that game was where you struggled. Do you agree with that?

CC: Yeah, I definitely struggled that game. That game and Atlanta were my two worst games.
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SW: Those two games are the ones we ranked your lowest of the year. What specifically happened against the run that game against the Chargers? Was it just the O-line play and they were able to lock you up for the game?

CC: They do a lot of lateral blocking movements and they were able to use their techniques to get on the edge. They do a lot of opie-dope type stuff, so they push one way and then I’ll over penetrate, get up field a bit, and the running backs cut back. That makes the gap a little bit bigger for the running back to fill. I definitely didn’t play well at all by any means. I watched film, changed my game a bit, and the coach worked with me a lot. That was definitely my worst game.
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SW: If I were to ask you what you felt your best game of the season was, what would you say? There are two in particular that we rate higher than others.

CC: In the Carolina game, I definitely felt dominant (for a lack of better term). I played a lot more true DE in that game, actually. That benefited me and I got a lot more comfortable in my position. It took me a while to get going, but that was the game mentally where I was really trying to be dominant like I was in college. I started feeling a lot more unblockable from what I did in practice. I struggled a little bit in the beginning of the season, but I just kept working harder and eventually everything started click for me and I was beginning to feel dominant.

The Cowboys’ game, I feel like I had a strong game then as well. I always do better against bigger offensive lineman. It’s the quicker [smaller] guys that are hard for me because they’re naturally so much lower than me. If a guy’s already big, I can get lower easier, so that way it gives me a stronger advantage.
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SW: You were spot-on with the Carolina game, you seemed to be all over the place. You had 10 tackles and nine stops. You’re obviously a big guy at 6’8” and 300 lbs. How do you use that size to your advantage in the trenches?

CC: Every year I’ll have an exit meeting with Coach Whiz (Ken Whisenhunt) and he’ll say, “Plain and simple. When you play low with great technique you’re unblockable and when you play high, people get underneath you look like an average player.” It’s true. If I continue to work hard, stay low, and use perfect technique, that’s when I’m the best and my size creates a natural leverage. If I can stay lower than a guy that’s shorter than me, then I’ll be able to dominate him with extra leverage. It makes a big difference.
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SW: As you mentioned earlier, Darnell Dockett has been across from you for the past two years you’ve been a starter. He seems to be better known in the media outlets. However, in both years you’ve been a better pass rusher and a better run stopper statistically. You also ranked 10th overall among defensive linemen in tackles in 2010. What do you think you need to do in order to get the recognition you seem to deserve?

CC: I always think recognition comes with contracts. That’s what it is in my mind. Whenever someone gets a big contract, the media’s always watching him. Darnell Dockett has been in the league a long time and he’s a great player. He deserves the recognition he gets. I was drafted in the second round and not really at a high media position. If I was a first round pick, there would probably be a little more out there. If I play well and get a big contract, I guarantee the media will be all over every situation. If I play bad, they’ll ride me and if I play well, they’ll go crazy. It really comes with the contract.
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SW: At the QB position, the Cardinals have two young guys headed into 2011 — John Skelton and Max Hall. That’s obviously before you consider any free agency that may occur in the next few weeks. What are your feelings on those guys as the team’s starting QB (either guy) in 2011?

CC: They both have the personality of a quarterback. They have great poise and a lot of charisma. They’re good young talents. Skelton is the prototypical guy. He’s 6’5” / 6’6”, 220 lbs, he’s strong, and athletic. Coming from Fordham, he never really was prepared for the NFL. He got thrown in the last couple of games and went 2-2, played fairly well, but he never really played any game in high school or college as big as he played towards the end of the season. He’s going to be a great quarterback in the near future. That’s why a lot of people are speculating we’re going to bring in an older quarterback to groom some of the younger ones along.

Max Hall is definitely a pure talent, as well. He’s a little undersized, but he has a big heart and he plays with a lot of passion. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t coach and coaches look for in a guy.
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SW: Any clue on which guy would beat the other out at this point?

CC: It’s a competition. It depends on who is looking good in camp. Size wise, Skelton has an advantage. They both will be competing for a job. Towards the end of [2010], Skelton finished as the starter, so I think he may have a leg up already, but it’ll be a competition. I’m sure that two or three more guys that we bring in will compete for the job, as well. The way that Coach Whiz is, the person that gives us the best chance to win will play.
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SW: The Cardinals’ defense ranked in the bottom five of the NFL in yards against and points allowed per game last season. What do you think needs to change on the defense to improve that ranking and get the Cards’ defense in the top half of the league?

CC: It’s chemistry really. A lot of games we were in sync and we played well, and we were out of sync we really struggled and we got blown up. There were a bunch of games we played great and we won games with defense. You take the Saints’ game; we scored three times on defense and did a good job of taking away the offense’s weapons. There were games we got blown up like San Diego where we couldn’t stop anybody. When it comes down to it, it’s just confidence in each other and being in sync and play with chemistry. It stinks with the way the off season is this year because we miss out on a lot of opportunities to build our relationships.
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SW: So is that just a function of there being a lot of new guys on the defense last year (i.e., Kerry Rhodes coming from the Jets, Daryl Washington, and Paris Lenon). Is that the main reason you say chemistry and you guys needing a few more games to play together?

CC: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a huge reason. We have a lot of talent. We have a lot of talented guys who can be really dominant. Our core group of guys are very talented. If we can come together and play together, we really can do some great things. I’m excited for the season and hopefully get to camp on time because we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of talent and a lot of potential, so I think we’ll be good this year.
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SW: Going back to last year, many people point to the linebacker play as a big weakness in the defense with Joey Porter and Clark Haggans struggling for pieces of the year on the outside. The ILB play seemed to be ok with Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon. Now Sam Acho was added to the mix at OLB through the NFL draft. What are your thoughts on the LB group headed into 2011?

CC: There’s a lot of progress that can be made at a lot of our positions on defense from the DBs all the way through the defensive line, including the linebackers. We have a lot of talented guys, especially at the outside linebacker position. [We have] young guys who were going through a lot of injuries who didn’t get a chance to play or played here and there that have the potential to be great in this league like O’Brien Schofield who would have been a first round pick if he didn’t blow his knee out in the Senior Bowl. We end up getting him the last four or five games and he showed signs of potential. He didn’t get to play that much, but when he did play, he showed potential. We have a nice cross between old and very young that complement each other.
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SW: Can you give a little bit more insight into Daryl Washington at inside linebacker? He was only a rookie last season, but he was pretty solid. At PFF, we ranked him the 18th best ILB in the league.

CC: He’s a solid player. He’s a very smart guy and a hard worker. He’s a little undersized for a linebacker, but in the next two or three years he’s going to be in the Top 5 of linebackers in the NFL. His biggest [positive] is that he can cover the field sideline to sideline; he has a nose for the football, and is a sure tackler. His biggest thing is his youth. His vision is not as good as it could be just yet – that comes with time. He’s got to slow down and really learn to observe things. This year, and everyone says it, is that the difference between your rookie year and your second year is tremendous. In my opinion, he’s going to be better this season.
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SW: You mentioned earlier on that you’ve been doing some charity work. You have a not-for-profit organization called the CRC Foundation. Can you tell me a little bit about your foundation?

CC: It’s a foundation trying to benefit underprivileged kids. The main goal is to try and help kids figure out what they want to do in life and to help them develop the skills to get there. My dad’s name was Charles Richard Campbell, so that’s what CRC stands for and that’s where it comes from. He had a vision to help kids figure out what they want to do in life and keep them off the streets. Football is great, but if it didn’t work out I could have done a lot of other things. My dad always made sure I was involved in different jobs. I was really into computers growing up. Anything I wanted to do, he made sure I had the resources to do it. I’d like to develop this and have kids come through and help them develop skills and get them to where they want to go.
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SW: Do you focus in Arizona, back hometown in Colorado, or nationally?

CC: Right now it’s in the beginning phases and is in Arizona more than anything else. I really want it to be a national program eventually. I have a huge vision for it to be a national program. I want to start a scholarship fund and make it bigger than just Arizona. I want it to be a big deal.
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SW: You mentioned your father who’s since passed. He once said to you, “Once you start something you have to finish.” What do you think your father would say and how would he apply that to your football career at this point and going forward?

CC: I think about that all the time. What it really comes down to is never be satisfied with where I’m at. I definitely appreciate where I’m at, but never get comfortable and relax, and always continue to strive to be better. That’s one of the biggest things I think about every day. My father passed when I was a senior in high school and while I was going through college and my first few years in the NFL, there’s not a day that goes by where I try not to let that go in vain. I strive to be better. That’s the one thing he taught me: if you want to be the best, you need to work harder than everyone else. Don’t settle for mediocrity; be the best. Otherwise, why do it?
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If Weeks 5 through 17 of 2010 are any indication, his role and how to produce in the 3-4 defense has clicked. His attitude is perfect: never be satisfied and always continue to strive to be the best. Calais knows how to play the position and he’s ready to be dominant.
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