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Arizona Cardinals

Updated Mar 27, 2017 - 3:40 pm

Cardinals’ Mathieu is getting stronger and faster ahead of 2017 season

Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) celebrates a Tampa Bay Buccaneers turn over during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Tyrann Mathieu did not have a particularly good 2016 season.

The safety was coming back from a torn ACL, and while he was on the field, he just was not himself.

Then Mathieu suffered a shoulder injury in Week 8, missed two games and returned for one, before missing two more. He played in Week 15 against New Orleans, but then that was it before it landed him on injured reserve.

In all, the dynamic defensive back collected just 36 total tackles, one sack and one interception.

“It was pretty depressing,” he told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Friday of finishing the season on IR. “I would say most people that are close to me didn’t know I was dealing with something.

“It was really depressing, man. I had to take a step back and I’m really grateful and fortunate to have the kind of people I have around me nowadays, so I wasn’t in a slump too long.”

Mathieu said that from the moment the season ended he has been in the weight room, making sure he understands that he has to take care of his body.

“I just have to take really good care of it, but I also have to be conscious and understand how my body works,” he added.

When Mathieu is right, he is a centerpiece of Arizona’s defense. As much of a playmaker as there is in the NFL, he helps in coverage and against the run, while also producing sacks and turnovers. It’s why the Cardinals, even while he was rehabbing from the most recent torn ACL, signed Mathieu to a long-term extension last summer, and why they are still bullish on his future with the organization.

But 2016 was the third time in four seasons he has ended the campaign on IR, Mathieu said he has been able to approach this offseason healthy, which allowed him to work on his game.

The 24-year-old said he has been able to add weight while getting faster — he said he is stronger and faster than he’s ever been — with the goal of being able to play well and withstand a full NFL schedule.

Mathieu regaining his form would go a long way toward Arizona bouncing back from a season in which the Cardinals slumped to a 7-8-1 record. A team leader, Mathieu felt he wasn’t able to do what he needed last year while battling injury.

That isn’t a problem now, but the team he could be helping to lead has taken some big hits in free agency. Mathieu said losing key players like Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger and Calais Campbell is tough because while he is happy for them landing big contracts and being able to take care of their families, their losses will be felt on the field and in the locker room.

“We drafted players to replace those guys, so it’s going to be key for guys like Robert (Nkemdiche) to step up and different guys in our secondary to really step up try to just fill those voids,” he said.

Other players will have to fill in, but Mathieu understands his role in the grand scheme of it all. He understands that his contract means there are expectations, and not playing up to them could lead to some changes. He said he can’t control that, however, and will only focus on being as good a player as he can.

The fifth-year pro is confident in himself, and not at all down on his team’s future.

“Even a lot of games last year we lost really close games, games we’ve won in the past,” he said. “Really, just mental errors, mental mistakes. So if we can clean those things up I still think we’re a top-10 offense and we still had a pretty good defense last year; we just couldn’t finish out in critical situations, you know, late in the first half, late in the football game. We couldn’t find turnovers, we couldn’t score points.

“I think it’s really up to our playmakers, our five-star players to really step up and really try to carry this team as far as we can. And not to mention our young guys that have a season under their belt now, we need those guys to step up and play well as well.”

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