In the first week of the season he made one of the best plays a player could make, punching the ball out of the arms of Rams TE Jared Cook as he sprinted toward the goal line. That play saved a touchdown for Big Red. The next week, against the Lions, Mathieu made a game-clinching tackle on 4th & 4, jumping Nate Burleson with a strong tackle, keeping him short of the stakes on a slant route. Last week, he made tackles all over the field and picked off Drew Brees in the end zone as the Saints were preparing to score.
He's created two turnovers in three games.
Although this is consistent with his college career and the production he turned out at LSU, it was what Tyrann Mathieu said to a reporter last week that shed light on why the Honey Badger is so adept at making plays and creating turnovers that caught my attention. This kid is brilliant, the maestro of mash, the Picasso of Pigskin, the Einstein of all things relative to the gridiron.
Listening to what the Honey Badger told Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated, describing the 4th & 4 tackle against the Lions, as a former player, filled me with awe and appreciation and made me realize the foundation of this rookie is his brain. This kid is special. Behold:
"I wouldn't say that I KNEW the ball was coming to me but there was a high probability that they would target me. They ran this route probably the entire game when I was out wide, so my whole thought process is, "They're going to run Calvin (Johnson) away like they've been doing and try to get the ball quick on a slant route or drag route so he can outrun everybody, or they're going to come to me backside." Earlier in the game these two guys (Johnson and Burleson) were closer to each other in this formation, so when I see Nate move farther out, I already know he's trying to get back to the inside. My whole thing was that I'm just going to try to (disrupt) him at the line of scrimmage. I know he's not going to go deep because I've got a deep safety back there, so I really just want to take away the inside and drive on the ball.
We had pressure on so the ball had to come out quick. We were in man coverage, but I didn't want to get right up on him at the line of scrimmage. He's a crafty vet. He was pulling my arm and doing all kinds of things to me during the game and I wasn't about to get into a mind game with him. I was just going to back off a bit, wait for him to come and try to press on me, then get my hands on him and redirect him.
My whole thing—and this was just from film preparation—he comes off the ball and he just gives you his chest (meaning he doesn't use his hands to protect from being jammed in the upper body). I hadn't played cornerback for almost two years, and those are fundamentals that don't come back in a week. So the whole game before this I was press-bailing (one jab at the receiver, then turning and running with him) because I hadn't gotten comfortable with press coverage yet. That's probably what he thought I was going to do again. But this last play—it's 4th-and-4 so you can't press-bail. I had to man up.
I knew from my film study that he liked to give you his chest, but I didn't try to jam him there the entire game. You have to save it for a special moment, because if you start pressing him at the beginning of the game and have success, he's going to change up. But that was the perfect time because I hadn't done it. I was in his face, but I hadn't put my hands on him. But this was the perfect time. He wasn't expecting it.
Are you hearing the level of depth and detail this kid is providing? There's more…
It actually kind of flattened his route. If he had been able to get up on me or I had been on the line and he got inside leverage on me, he could have easily caught the ball and stuck it out for a first down. I think Calvin was the primary receiver on the play, just because of the situation. But Patrick (Peterson, Arizona's Pro Bowl cornerback) took the slant or drag away so fast that the quarterback had to go elsewhere. He wasn't going to have time to look to his left, then come back to his right, so I figured the ball was going to come to me behind Calvin. Luckily I was able to make the play.
I don't think luck had anything to do with it, Honey Badger.
Ron Wolfley, Co-host of Doug & Wolf