TEMPE, Ariz. — Thought to be a unit on the rise given the influx of acquisitions made in the offseason, three weeks into the 2013 season the Arizona Cardinals’ linebacking corps more closely resembled a MASH unit than a source of strength.
Following a 31-7 loss at New Orleans on Sept. 22, Arizona was forced to put outside linebackers Sam Acho (broken left fibula) and Lorenzo Alexander (Lisfranc injury in his right foot) on season-ending injured reserve.
Fourth-round pick Alex Okafor was expected to take on some of the load left in the absence of Acho and Alexander, but just two days later he was also forced to season-ending injured reserve with a torn biceps injury.
So just how has Todd Bowles made it work on the outside since a trio of injuries decimated any semblance of depth?
Well for starters, a healthy dose of veterans John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy, some duct tape and a pair of retreads — Dontay Moch and Marcus Benard — just looking for a chance to play.
“Any time you lose two starters [in Acho and Alexander], you get a little worried,” Bowles said. “But having Abraham and Shaughnessy with the additions of Benard and Moch, you have two starters who have been starting in the league and quality ballplayers. They’re rotating pretty good anyways, it was just a matter or playing to their strengths and not the other guys.”
While Abraham and Shaughnessy, who have combined for four sacks and 29 total tackles, deserve a bulk of the credit for helping Arizona survive its early-season battle of attrition, Benard and Moch have also been invaluable.
Both linked by their recent trips to the waiver wire, their journeys to the Valley aren’t all the dissimilar, either.
Moch, who starred at Chandler Hamilton High School from 2002 to 2005, failed to make even a dent during his first two years in the league. After getting selected in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, the Arizona native suffered a broken foot during his first career preseason game and never dressed during his rookie year. In 2012, a four-game substance abuse-related suspension and lingering migraines limited him to just one contest on the Bengals’ active roster.
The Cardinals added the third-year linebacker to the practice squad back on Sept. 2, and he quickly made his way up to the active roster after Acho and Alexander were lost for the season.
“It’s honestly been great just to get out there and get an opportunity to do something,” said Moch, who recorded three tackles and a critical fourth quarter sack on Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon during Arizona’s 13-10 victory on Sept. 29. “The fact that [Benard] and I are both out there learning the system, getting the trust of our coaches to take the reps and get out there if or when the older guys do get injured, you know it’s a blessing.
“It’s something I’ve definitely been preparing for and want to continue to be ready for.”
For Moch, his time with the Cardinals has more or less served as his first real chance to prove himself during the regular season. The same can’t exactly be said for Benard.
Signed by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2009, the former Jackson State standout found his way into 21 games during his first two seasons in the league and recorded 11.0 sacks in the process.
Unfortunately for Benard, though, an Oct. 2011 motorcycle accident on the way home resulted in a broken arm and cut short his third season and a dislocated shoulder in the preseason ended any chance of him playing in 2012 before it really started.
Benard spent the entire 2013 preseason with the New England Patriots but failed to make it through their final roster cut, so on Oct. 2, Steve Keim decided to take a chance on the 28-year-old.
It’s a chance that’s finally starting to pay dividends for both sides.
With Shaughnessy limited because of a knee injury during Arizona’s 27-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Benard got a chance to do what he does best: rush the passer.
“Any time I get to the quarterback it means the world to me,” said Benard, who registered one of the team’s four sacks on Matt Ryan. “I consider myself a pass rusher, so whenever I get to that quarterback it’s a great day for me.”
More than anything, though, it was a great day because the sack and subsequent victory proved to be a fitting culmination to Benard’s long road back to the field of play.
“It’s a blessing,” said Benard. “I’m excited and thankful for the coaches to have the confidence in me and the peace of mind to bring me in here to work with this defense. It’s already a great defense with pass rushing and the linebacking corps is solid. It’s been a great opportunity for me.”
By the combined numbers alone — seven games, seven tackles, two sacks and one start — Marcus Benard and Dontay Moch might appear to be nothing more than glorified insurance.
Ask their coordinator, however, and he’ll tell you they’ve meant far more to the team than just a couple of warm bodies.
“You know it’s early, but they flash and show you different things,” said Bowles. “Moch has speed. Benard has some strength, and he uses his hands well. It’s still early, but they have been positive for us so far.”