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Now it can be said: Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu is back

Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) intercepts a pass against the Chicago Bears during the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – When praising safety Tyrann Mathieu during training camp, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians always added a disclaimer: Do it on gameday.

Hardly a practice has finished without seeing Mathieu either break up a pass, deflect a pass or intercept a pass; and sometimes all three.

“He’s got his hands on a lot of balls,” Arians said recently, before adding, “Until it’s real bullets, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Wait no more.

In the second quarter of Saturday’s loss to the Chicago Bears, Mathieu recorded his first interception of the preseason. He stepped in front of a Mike Glennon pass intended for Kendall Wright, jumping the route for a red-zone turnover.

“I just saw the receiver stem me. He stemmed me outside, so I knew he was running an out route,” Mathieu said after the 24-23 setback. “I actually thought I was about to get a skinny post, but he ended up breaking it off. We were in an outside leverage coverage, anyway, so I was just able to slip him and get in front of him.”

And once Mathieu had the ball secured in his hands that’s when he really went to work.

Running up the right sidelines, Mathieu high-stepped his way past several would-be tacklers, further exciting the 64,016 in attendance at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Crossing midfield, Mathieu momentarily lost control of the ball only to regain his hold on it and then finally went to the ground at the Bears 43-yard line. It was a 52-yard return.

“He’s a beast. He’s back,” linebacker Markus Golden said of Mathieu. “He’s been doing it in practice since camp started, so we already knew what he could do. He’s just back to being himself.”

The interception helped set up the Cardinals’ first touchdown, a Carson Palmer one-yard throw to tight end Jermaine Gresham on 4th-and-goal to give the Cardinals a 7-3 lead.

Mathieu had swung momentum in the Cardinals favor.

“That is at least a 10-point swing, maybe a 14-point swing, so obviously it was huge,” Palmer said.

In addition to the interception, Mathieu finished the game with two tackles, including one for loss — he and linebacker Chandler Jones combined to drop receiver Kevin White behind the line of scrimmage for a three-yard loss in the first quarter — while playing 24 defensive snaps.

Since his arrival to the Cardinals as a third-round draft pick in 2013, Mathieu has always had great instincts for the football. What he hasn’t always had is great health. Three of his four NFL seasons have ended early due to injury, including last season when a shoulder issue limited him to 10 games, a career-low for Mathieu.

“That’s why I think it’s so important for me to be healthy and stay healthy because that’s the kind of play I can make for my team,” he said, referring to the pick. “But, like I said, it was a great call by ‘Bettch’ (defensive coordinator James Bettcher) just putting me in the position to make the play, and obviously, anytime a play like that comes my way, I’ve got to make it.”

A healthy, playmaking Mathieu bodes well for the Cardinals in 2017.

Still, Arians, while pleased with the interception, couldn’t resist a subtle dig on his all-pro safety following the game.

“I got on him about a quarterback catching him, but he’s got to get in shape,” Arians said.

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