Cardinals DT Nkemdiche attempts to harness late breakout game
TEMPE, Ariz. — Good things might come to those who wait, but in the NFL, time doesn’t slow down for those who are patient.
The Arizona Cardinals know the feeling. They have been waiting for defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche to meet the expectations of being a 29th overall draft pick, and as 2018 has grown old, an approaching contract year for him has made the team anxious to see the third-year pro take steps forward.
“Robert’s a guy we drafted high, has not lived up to expectation to this date, point blank. That’s not a secret,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf show Friday.
Nkemdiche made a little of that anxiousness go away Sunday in what was without question his best game as a pro. The 6-foot-4, 296-pound lineman made seven tackles with 2.5 sacks and a stuff.
To him, the numbers were a reminder to focus on the now. Maybe, it relieved him of the pressures of living up to his draft slot.
“It’s good to understand the concept of process … and how to become better at your craft,” he said Friday. “Don’t let other people decide (expectations) for you. Kind of have you own pace of what you’re doing … but always know you’re working at a high rate of speed.
“That game was more of a testament for me and just clarity, solidification (to) just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep getting better, pay attention to the little things, be aggressive,” Nkemdiche added. “You go forth from there keep getting better and keep trying to bite the other peoples’ face mask off when you have a chance to do it.”
Injuries on top of inconsistencies played a part in pushing Nkemdiche’s breakout NFL game back.
He hardly played as a rookie and last year as a reserve recorded just 11 tackles without a sack. His first big play didn’t come until the home finale in 2017, when he forced a fumble and scored on a 21-yard touchdown during a shutout win over the New York Giants.
The Cardinals let veteran tackle Frostee Rucker walk in the offseason, effectively handing Nkemdiche an opportunity to win a starting role.
He’s battled foot and calf injuries, missing three games this year. Two weeks off led to better health, enough for his performance in a 45-10 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
“For lack of a better term, he’s a violent player when he comes off the ball,” defensive coordinator Al Holcomb said. “He’s just so aggressive. When he’s playing fast like he did Sunday, that’s what you get. Now, we need him to be more consistent with his technique as he’s being aggressive coming off the ball.”
Keim pointed toward gap integrity and playing the run game “a little more stout” as areas needing improvement for Nkemdiche.
“But when you see his get-off, his twitch and his explosiveness … there’s not many guys with that kind of skillset,” the GM said.
So far this year, Nkemdiche has compiled 30 tackles with 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The Cardinals hope his latest performance can be harnessed starting Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
“Even if you’re not being fully productive, still find ways you can affect the game, in whichever way you can,” Nkemdiche said. “Even if it’s putting the extra bit of fertilizer on this part of the grass because they’re going to be here, so they’re going to trip.
“Before anything, it’s a mindset. (Having) certainty … you know what the (expletive) you’re doing and you’re going to do it and this dude’s not going to stop you. You play with that mindset, and then play with intensity and technique and the call within the scheme.”
The Cardinals ruled out linebacker Deone Bucannon (chest) for Sunday’s game in Green Bay, setting an already-atrophied position group back even further.
MIKE linebacker Josh Bynes, the team’s signal-caller on defense, was put on the injured reserve list on Monday, while fellow starter Haason Reddick is listed as questionable with a neck stinger.
Undrafted rookies Zeke Turner and Dennis Gardeck, plus third-year pro Joe Walker are the next players up at linebacker.
Veteran Gerald Hodges steps into Bynes’ leadership role. The concern is not limited to whether inexperienced replacements know the schemes. How Hodges communicates with the rest of the defense is a work-in-progress heading into the game against the Packers.
“That’s always a concern,” Holcomb said. “Just a different-sounding voice, so the other 10 men in the huddle have to get used to that — the tempo that the call comes out. The guys were joking the other day Gerald speaks a little bit quicker than Josh.”