TEMPE, Ariz. — Around the country, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald is earning rave reviews for his resurgence as a weapon in the passing game.
Through two games, the 32-year-old is tied for 10th in the league with 14 receptions, is fifth with 199 receiving yards and is tied for second with three receiving touchdowns. His fantasy football owners are very pleased with the early returns.
But inside the organization, while everyone is undoubtedly excited about the box scores the veteran is producing, it is something that does not show up in the stat book that has everyone talking.
Specifically, Fitzgerald’s blocking in the run game.
Asked what has changed in that department this season, as the Cardinals are averaging 4.4 yards per carry through two games this year after gaining just 3.3 yards per tote last season, head coach Bruce Arians pointed to the tight ends, offensive line and receivers blocking, singling out Fitzgerald as someone who has excelled.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, who has made a living throwing to players like Fitzgerald, has noticed the receiver’s ability there, too.
“I think he is the best in the game,” Palmer said. “I would take him over a lot of tight ends in the blocking game and it’s nothing but will and want-to. There are a lot of guys that don’t want to and a lot of guys that look like they can. He obviously looks like he can and does it. There are not a lot of guys that do that at his position.”
At 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, Fitzgerald no doubt has enough size to at least get in the way of defenders, if not beat them outright. But just being big does not make a player a good blocker, especially when said player is a eight-time Pro Bowler who is going to enter the Hall of Fame because of his ability to stretch the field and make big-time catches.
“His heart. You block with your heart,” Arians said of what makes Fitzgerald a good blocker. “You see a lot of wide receivers go, ‘I could’ve got him.’ No, you could’ve got him and you just didn’t. He gets it.”
Fitzgerald, though, admits that hasn’t always been the case.
“It wasn’t something that was really high on my priority list when I was younger, but here for us to be able to have great team success it requires the wide receivers to do some blocking,” Fitzgerald said. “And so for us to be able to have the success I know that we’re capable of, guys have to do some things that maybe they weren’t good at before.
“But I’ve worked at it, we practice on it every single day. I’m much more comfortable doing it and I just hope to continue to improve at it.”
His ability to be an extra blocker, especially when lined up in the slot as often as he is, is a central reason for the team’s improvement in the run game. Offensive coordinator said Fitzgerald reminds him of former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who was also a physical blocker. He said the receiver is always talking to him about how he can improve as a blocker, and that mentality trickles down to the rest of the receiver group.
It’s clear that while blocking may not have been a priority for Fitzgerald — and still, he gets paid as much as he does to catch the ball — it is now a big part of his game that will continue to help the Cardinals win. While Chris Johnson, David Johnson and Andre Ellington get the credit for running with the ball and the offensive line is praised for opening holes, the work of Fitzgerald and his fellow wideouts may not be easy to see, but it is not unnecessary.
“As a football player either you’ve got it or you don’t have it,” Goodwin said. “You have to be a tough guy, first of all. There are a lot of guys that play in this league that are not tough — they’re just athletic and they can make plays.
“But when it comes down to it, the dirty part of the game, be it blocking in the trenches or blocking on the perimeter, it’s got to be a will, it’s got to be an attitude, it’s got to be a want-to, and Larry has that.”
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