Cardinals rookie Isaiah Simmons kept confidence while playing catch-up
Linebacker Isaiah Simmons knew what he didn’t know. He was quite aware that a pandemic took away what Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has estimated at 1,200 offseason and preseason snaps.
He was told by coaches, family and teammates to be patient. And he knew that the NFL is not the same as college football.
For the rookie No. 8 pick, none of that made it less frustrating that he took more than half the 2020 season to see the playing field on a semi-regular basis.
“I’m not going to lie, it was pretty rough for me,” Simmons said Tuesday.
The inside linebacker is coming off a career-high 45-snap game last Thursday against the Seattle Seahawks. He recorded career highs with 10 total tackles, two for loss, plus his first sack as a professional.
Now, he’s played 30 or more snaps in each of the last three games. A calf injury to starting linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has lingered the last two games, forcing Simmons to play as more than a utility man. In place of Campbell, Simmons has showed consistency and proved general manager Steve Keim correct — he very much looks like an impact starter.
There didn’t appear to be a moment of reckoning in how Simmons handled the limited opportunities earlier this season. He had the expectations to be the starter from Day 1, Joseph said, and his inability to help the team win nagged at him.
That Simmons didn’t even have game film to explain why he wasn’t playing bothered the rookie, even though he’d been through it before as a little-used reserve to start his college career at Clemson.
“Keeping happiness and peace within myself was, you know, different,” he said. “I’m a really big critic of myself so trying to figure out why things were happening, in my mind it’s like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ It wasn’t much of what I did wrong. It was more of just being patient and being able to learn the differences within this league.
“I just kind of relied on myself and kept believing in myself. Once you lose self-confidence, it’s hard to come back from that.”
Arizona’s Week 7 game against the Seahawks before a bye played a pivotal role in Simmons’ season thus far.
His overtime interception of Russell Wilson to set up the Cardinals’ game-winning field goal sparked more confidence.
“From that moment on, it’s definitely changed for Isaiah,” Joseph said.
Simmons said Tuesday he thinks the play did that as well — but he also believes it bought more opportunities from the coaching staff.
Campbell’s injury two games back then allowed for Joseph to sub his starter with a rookie first-round pick, who in the past two games looks caught up after the limited offseason.
“I’ve just kind of been thinking, pretty much the whole year, all I need is just some consecutive snaps so I can get comfortable and feel the flow of the game,” Simmons said. “I feel like ever since I’ve got consecutive snaps that I’ve been able to find a comfort level within the game, and feel the flow of it and be able to be myself and just play.”
— Jalen Thompson suffered a second tweaked ankle on Thursday and will likely miss at least a game. The loss might be compounded with fellow second-year pro Deionte Thompson going on the COVID-19 reserve list Tuesday. “We’re not sure yet about Jalen,” Joseph said. “That’s the second time he’s had a tweaked ankle. It may be a week or two before he returns
“I feel bad for Jalen because he was playing good football, he was just back for two weeks (from the prior ankle injury), and he was getting better and better each snap. To lose him again, that’s hard for us, obviously, but harder for Jalen.”
— Joseph on the addition of veteran defensive tackle Domata Peko: “He’s a huge get for us … He’s played for me before (Bengals, 2014-15; Broncos, 2017-18) so the learning curve is going to be short.
“He came in two days ago and didn’t make one mistake, so that’s huge for our young guys to watch him work and watch how he communicates up front. He played good football last year for Baltimore.”