TEMPE, Arizona (AP) — Throughout his four-game suspension from the NFL, Daryl Washington heard it from Arizona Cardinals teammate Darnell Dockett.

"Man," Dockett would say, "we'd be 4-0 if we had you."

An exaggeration, maybe. But there's no doubt Arizona's good defense got a lot better when Washington, suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy, was back on the field last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

In Arizona's 22-6 victory to improve to 3-2, the fast, fierce inside linebacker had two sacks and an interception. He led the team with nine tackles, three for losses, with two quarterback hits.

"It's great to have a Pro Bowl player back," coach Bruce Arians said.

The Cardinals learned through Washington's first two seasons how good he could be. Three days before the 2012 season began, they signed him to a six-year contract worth up to $31 million. He went on to lead the team in tackles (140), sacks (9) and tackles for loss (14), earning his first Pro Bowl berth.

Then things turned sour.

In April, the NFL announced Washington's suspension. A month later, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and criminal trespass. Prosecutors accused him of grabbing his ex-girlfriend's throat and shoving her to the ground during an argument at her apartment. She is the mother of Washington's baby girl.

He wouldn't comment on the case, which is still in the courts. When it's resolved, Washington could face more punishment by the NFL, in addition to whatever criminal penalty he would receive if convicted.

He said he has returned as a better player and person, "being more responsible and making the right decisions — always."

NFL rules now allow suspended players to attend team meetings and work out in the weight room. That kept Washington feeling a part of things.

"It really helped me more mentally," he said, "being able to be around the facility, being around the guys and laugh with them and see these guys prepare. It felt like I was preparing with them, just not playing on Sundays."

Washington makes others around him better. Fellow inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, for instance, had eight tackles, two sacks and an interception against Carolina.

"We were having fun out there," Dansby said with a smile. "Couldn't you tell?"

On Sunday, the Cardinals will be in San Francisco, where the 49ers present a much more formidable challenge and are all too familiar with Washington. In his last four games against San Francisco, Washington has three sacks and an interception.

Asked where Washington ranks at his position in the NFL, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "We've always thought he's right there at the top."

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