TEMPE, Ariz. — Tyrann Mathieu got his first start of the season at free safety Sunday against the Washington Redskins, though that had more to do with the formation the Arizona Cardinals’ opponent was running than anything else.
The second-year safety responded by collecting four total tackles, one quarterback hit and one fumble recovery in his team’s 30-20 win. The 49 snaps he played were a season high, and they represented a big moment in his return from a knee injury suffered late last season.
“Obviously I’m still progressing, still trying to get better mentally and physically,” he said. “If you asked me do I want to play every down, yeah, I would love to, but we’re kind of sticking to the plan we had since training camp.”
That has meant taking it slow and only increasing Mathieu’s responsibilities when he proves he’s ready to handle them. Or, as was the case Sunday, when the team needs him on the field.
“He was in the dime/nickel package and they were three/four wides the whole game,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “And we kind of anticipated that. If they had come out with two backs or two tight ends, Tony (Jefferson) would have been in there the whole time.”
Arians added matchups are why when the defense gets announced pregame, there will be 13 names on the list. That’s also emblematic of the depth the team has developed at the position, which is in no way a bad thing.
The Cardinals have options depending on the type of offense they are facing, and can adjust throughout the game as needed.
And once he’s back to being himself, Mathieu will offer quite a bit of versatility himself. In the meantime, he’s still learning to play with the brace that he will be wearing on his left knee, which while bothersome, is something he’s starting to get used to.
It’s all a process, and it’s one Mathieu cannot pinpoint a date for when asked when he believes it will all be over and he’ll be himself on the field.
“I’m dealing with a year-long injury, so hopefully November,” he said. “I mean, I showed a few signs of it last game just with burst and anticipating things, so hopefully as I play more, get more reps, Jerraud Powers, obviously, lined up next to me, definitely makes me comfortable.”
The solid performance Sunday was just another step in his road back to being the player who had the NFL abuzz last season with his unique blend of speed, quickness, instincts and playmaking ability. Though it was not a perfect performance, so much as getting to see even just a glimpse of the player he was pre-injury helped the 22-year-old’s confidence.
“It was confidence for me, confidence for my coaches,” he said. “And just me, watching that on film, lets me know that I can push myself even harder next time.”