TEMPE, Ariz. — Remember that great play Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu made in the second quarter of Monday night’s win over the Baltimore Ravens? You know, the one where he just barely got a hand on a deep ball from Joe Flacco to Chris Givens, deflecting it just enough to save a touchdown?
Well, it almost never happened, and you could have blamed Markus Golden for that.
The rookie linebacker got past right tackle Rick Wagner before right guard Marshal Yanda could slide over and help with a double team, and if not for Wagner reaching out with his left arm and holding Golden back, there’s a good chance Flacco would have either ended up on his back or not had enough juice on the pass to get it as far as he did.
A penalty flag was not thrown and Mathieu made a great play, so Golden’s contribution kind of flew under the radar. But the progress the second-round pick has made over the course of his rookie season has not.
“He’s exactly what we drafted — a junkyard dog,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He goes full speed in practice all the time. You have to tell him, ‘Whoa.’ That’s what his signature is. It’s his motor.”
This season, Golden has notched 15 total tackles along with one sack. But as is the case with many players — especially those in the defensive front seven — sometimes their work goes unnoticed in the box score. In a way, that kind of epitomizes Golden’s path to this point, as even while he was racking up 16.5 sacks over his last two seasons at Missouri most of the attention seemed to go toward his more-heralded teammates Michael Sam, Shane Ray and Kony Ealy.
But now, nearly halfway through his first NFL season, eyes are starting to turn to the 2015 Citrus Bowl MVP. ProFootballFocus.com, in a piece listing their top 10 Rookie of the Year candidates, placed Golden in the “Five to watch” category, while Arians said the linebacker is “probably six weeks ahead of where I thought he would be.”
“I feel like I’m doing good; of course I’m doing good,” Golden said of that thought. “Working hard, listening to the coaches. But of course I can always do better. That’s just the type of guy I am. I want to keep getting better and just keep listening to my coaches and doing whatever they want me to do.”
The Cardinals have needed Golden to do more over the last few weeks as Alex Okafor, the team’s leader in sacks last season, has been out with calf injury. Okafor is on the mend, with Arians saying the third-year pro’s return is “going to be real close this week,” though it would not be a shock to see him, with the bye week following Sunday’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns, sit one more game in order to ensure he’s healthy when the Cardinals’ season resumes in Week 9.
If Okafor does sit one more game, or even if he doesn’t, Golden appears to have done enough to warrant a significant role going forward.
Playing well will do that for you.
Golden said while he was working hard to get a grasp of things during training camp, it all sort of clicked at the beginning of the season. With the help of his veteran teammates — he specifically mentioned Sean Weatherspoon — and coaches, he has felt more comfortable with the transition from defensive end, his college position, and outside linebacker, what he is being asked to play now.
“He certainly plays one of those positions, you’re a do-all guy,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “You’re an outside linebacker, you’re a third-down rusher, you’re playing nickel on the edge. That role and that position here for the last few years has been one of many hats, and he’s really worked at learning what he’s got to do because we all know when he’s rolling, he’s playing fast and he’s playing violent, so that’s the biggest thing for him.”
Golden said the most difficult part of his transition has been learning how deep he should drop as well as recognizing what angles he should be taking in coverage, but he feels like things are coming along there.
All that said, the Cardinals tabbed Golden with the 58th overall selection in the draft with hopes that he would develop into a consistent pass rusher. He’s not a finished product there, either.
“I’ve been rushing the passer forever, but there are still little things I learn from LaMarr Woodley and Dwight Freeney,” he said. “In college you could just get out there and pass rush, but in the NFL, the D-tackles can help me get a sack just from staying in their gap or I can help LaMarr on the other side or Freeney on the other side get a sack just from looping and staying in my gap. So there’s a lot stuff that you can do in pass rushing that’s different from what you did in college.”
Golden played three seasons of college football. A starter for just one year — last year — his numbers improved as his role grew. It would not be a surprise if the same thing happened as a professional, with what’s transpired thus far being just the tip of the iceberg.
“Markus, he’s a natural pass rusher; he’s going to be a great pass rusher once he learns the system,” Woodley said. “The thing that about him that’s just slowing him up now is just kind of learning the system.
“Playing that 3-4 defense where you have a lot of cover responsibilities and have more responsibilities than just rushing. I think since he’s been starting he’s been slowly getting an understanding of the defense he’s been moving a lot faster. Next year when he gets this defense down pat it’s going to be hell for some people.”
That’s all well and good, but next year is next year. This season is still not yet halfway through, and while Golden is making great strides, that’s all they are. From here, the goal is to continue ascending, which means even though the coaches are saying nice things about him, there has been no change in how they are approaching the 24-year-old.
“Yeah, they stay on me, man,” Golden said. “That’s part of being a rookie in the NFL, though. Each day there’s something new that you can learn.
“Since I’ve been here from my first time getting here, I’m learning something new every day. That’s the thing about being in the NFL, all the coaches want me to be the best player I can be, and I appreciate them because they’re pushing me hard every day.”
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