New left tackle John Wetzel has earned trust with the Arizona Cardinals
TEMPE, Ariz. — For the second time this season, Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman John Wetzel finds himself in the spotlight.
“Spotlight, no spotlight, it’s fine with me,” Wetzel said Thursday, shrugging off all the attention.
Reporters again gathered around Wetzel’s locker this week anxious to get his thoughts on his move into the starting lineup when the Cardinals host San Francisco on Sunday, a shift that is expected to be for the balance of the season.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I’ve been around for a while, and it’s good to finally get in there to start instead of sitting on the bench.”
Wetzel replaces left tackle Jared Veldheer, who suffered a season-ending triceps injury in Carolina and became the ninth different Cardinal to be placed on injured reserve since the season began.
Earlier in the year, Wetzel spelled left guard Mike Iupati for a game-and-a-half, including all 77 snaps against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football in what was Wetzel’s first-ever NFL start.
“Any time you get some game experience, it’s good having that,” he said. “So, I’m more comfortable because I’ve been in; at least got a feel for the game and the speed so, yeah, I’m a little bit more comfortable with going in there now compared to last time.”
Though it’s a position switch, Wetzel is more used to playing outside than inside on the offensive line.
Tackle is where he played at Boston College, starting every game at left tackle as a junior and starting at right tackle as a senior. It’s also the spot Wetzel lined up at when he first entered the league in 2013.
“It’s a little bit more natural for me,” he said.
Of course, the spotlight shines brighter on left tackle than left guard, at least with the Cardinals.
For one, Wetzel is being asked to protect quarterback Carson Palmer’s blind side. And two, Wetzel is being asked to fill the shoes of perhaps the team’s best and most dependable lineman.
On Sunday, Veldheer will miss his first game since joining the Cardinals three years ago, and he had started all 16 games in four of the last five seasons entering 2016.
Physically, Wetzel and Veldheer are very similar. Wetzel is 6’7″ and 328 pounds, Veldheer 6’8″ and 321 pounds.
There are differences, however; the first being experience, obviously. The second is something that can’t be measured, according to Palmer.
“You just don’t find a guy that replaces what he brings to the team, aside from what he brings to the field of play — what he brings to the locker room, what he brings to that group in their meeting rooms. So, it’s obviously a big loss,” he said. “But Wetz is ready. Wetz is excited. When I talk about guys being here (during the bye week), Wetz was around. Watching film, studying, working on his technique, lifting. He’s a physical specimen. So, I really don’t think he’ll be one of those guys that has that kind of deer in the headlights look. I think he’s ready to play. He’s been out there before and he’s excited about it.”
More importantly, coaches and players trust Wetzel.
His performance at San Francisco on Oct. 6, when he entered mid-game for Iupati, earned him a game ball.
“I feel very comfortable with John,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s more of a comfortable spot for him, and he’s tough and smart. Will he get beat? Probably, now and then. They all do. Jared did too, but he’ll do fine.”
The Cardinals allowed eight sacks in the road loss at Carolina, and though not entirely the offensive line’s fault, it marked a season-high and a career-high for Palmer.
Overall, Palmer has been sacked 25 times this season.
Keeping Palmer upright in the pocket is paramount if the Cardinals hope to transform their season here in the second half. And keep in mind, Arians is not big on giving his tackles help on the outside.
“You help them as much as you can, but the more you try to help them the more they don’t get help,” he said. “They just have to do their job and let them know you trust them to do their job.”
Asked whether he’s ready to be put out there on an island, Wetzel responded, “I expect anything, whether I might get some (help), might not, but I just got to be ready for whatever it is.”
Expect the 49ers to test Wetzel, as will the remaining teams on the schedule.
“San Francisco has good outside pass rushers between (Eli) Harold and (Aaron) Lynch and (Ahmad) Brooks, so it’s going to be a hell of a challenge,” said offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who called left tackle “a hot spot.”
After Veldheer got hurt in the fourth quarter, Wetzel played 17 snaps against the Panthers, and the 25-year-old appeared to hold his own.
“He did a fine job. The thing he’s got to do is not get out there and overthink it. Just relax and play ball,” Goodwin said. “He’s been a good security blanket for us. Now he’s a full-time starter. He’s just got to go out there and execute and do what we want him to do.”
Having the bye week follow that game proved to be a blessing. It afforded Wetzel more time to prepare for the biggest opportunity of his career.
“Just listen to the coaching, my teammates on the line, communicating and just honing the techniques, everyday small things; just going out there and getting my hands on someone, being in the right position,” he said. “I just got to keep doing what I’m doing to maintain the coaches’ trust and make them trust me even more.”
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