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Gerald Hodges stands out as Cardinals search for right LB mix

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, right, is tackled by Arizona Cardinals linebacker Gerald Hodges during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

TEMPE, Ariz. — A tuft of hair styled into a short ponytail might not yet be long enough to stick out the back of Gerald Hodges’ helmet. Looks aside, the few square inches of growth are important to the Arizona Cardinals linebacker, a reminder and symbol of his current self-improvement project.

It’s about being patient, and that might be paying off for Hodges two games into Arizona’s season.

“Most people wouldn’t see it when I started, most people thought it was funny,” he said of his hairstyle. “If I was patient enough, I knew what the outcome would look like. That’s what I wanted.

“That’s a lesson I’m working on myself.”

Two years removed from his best of seven NFL seasons (83 tackles, 3.0 sacks and two interceptions with San Francisco), Hodges spent last year playing sparingly for New Orleans. As a free agent, he didn’t settle on a landing spot until midway through the preseason, after injuries piled up for the Cardinals.

Starters Josh Bynes and Deone Bucannon were sidelined, and veteran Jeremy Cash had just blown out his knee in the first preseason game when Hodges inked with Arizona on Aug. 12.

A month later against the Rams on Sunday, it was Hodges thrusting himself into a key role as the second starting linebacker alongside Bynes. Head coach Steve Wilks said heading into Arizona’s Sunday home game against the Chicago Bears that the linebacker rotation remains in flux, but it’s the two veterans who have seemingly separated themselves from former Cardinals first-round picks Bucannon (2014) and Haason Reddick (2017).

“There’s no entitlement regardless of where you were drafted or status,” Wilks said.

Bucannon took the play-calling keys when the Cardinals opted against re-signing veteran Karlos Dansby this offseason.

A knee injury in early August zapped some of his preseason work, but he entered the regular season as a starting linebacker.

Just one game in, it appears that his opportunity is at risk amid a contract year. On Sunday during Arizona’s 34-0 loss to the Rams, it was Hodges earning half of the 72 defensive snaps for the Cardinals alongside Bynes, who played almost every down.

Bucannon earned 25 reps as defensive coordinator Al Holcomb continued to use heavy doses of nickel safety packages. Meanwhile, Reddick has hardly played as he adjusts from playing as more of a pass-rusher into a versatile linebacker.

Holcomb has admitted that he’s still learning his players’ strengths and weaknesses.

But it’s Hodges, who fancies himself as more of a traditional linebacker than the hybrid safety-linebackers like Bucannon, that has been most steady.

“He’s vocal. He’s shown some leadership, he’s a physical presence right now in the defense for us. He’s playing with some of the fundamentals, with the hands, hand violence, tackling, those things, getting off the blocks,” Holcomb said. “He understands offensive football a little bit. That’s helped him increase his snaps on the field.

“It’s a constant rotation. Right now, we’re just trying to continue to uncover guys that have that DNA that we’re looking for, the physicality, the effort, the communication. As you go into it, you start to learn different players and what different players’ skillsets (are) and what they bring to the table.”

EXTRA POINTS

— Holcomb on what challenges Bears coach Matt Nagy presents with his offense: “They give you a lot of different looks. It’s very similar to the Kansas City tree in terms of the West Coast system with some wrinkles so it’s going to be a challenge for us this week.”

— Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy downplayed the scaling back of the playbook that Wilks hoped will allow the Cardinals to play faster this week. “We’re not just running five plays,” McCoy said. “There’s certain things you cut back and there’s certain situations and categories, you might have one or two less plays in that category.”

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