Young Cardinals D-line getting healthier after personnel turn-style

Dec 4, 2020, 3:27 PM

Leki Fotu #95 of the Arizona Cardinals participates during training camp at State Farm Stadium on A...

Leki Fotu #95 of the Arizona Cardinals participates during training camp at State Farm Stadium on August 24, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Regardless of whether the Arizona Cardinals finish the final five games of 2020 with a postseason berth, this stretch remains pivotal for the position group hit hardest on the injury front.

With young players expected to return in the near future, the development on the defensive line has a chance to take a surprising positive step under first-year position coach Brentson Buckner.

And that group is playing well heading into a Week 13 game against the Los Angeles Rams, even with starters Corey Peters and Jordan Phillips on the injured reserve list and rookies Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence coming off IR.

“As far as the D-line goes, I thought they played a really nice game last week,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

Fifteen-year pro Domata Peko, in his first game with Arizona, played 33 snaps (62%) in the heart of the line last week.

For most of the 20-17 loss to the New England Patriots, Peko was joined by second-year man Zach Allen and preseason pickup Angelo Blackson.

The lack of depth behind them kept Allen and Blackson in the game more than defensive coordinator Vance Joseph would probably like, but the Cardinals still held the Patriots’ rushing attack relatively in check.

New England averaged 3.7 yards per carry with nine of the 30 rushes coming from quarterback Cam Newton. He accounted for 46 of 110 rushing yards on the day.

Incoming reinforcements for the Cardinals make it an especially interesting position group to watch.

Arizona’s pair of 2020 fourth-round draft picks, Fotu and Lawrence, is expected to return from injuries. Lawrence was activated to the 53-man roster this week, while Fotu returned to practice on the designated-to-return list after being pulled off injured reserve.

Fotu, who has five tackles and one for loss in six games, slowly earned more reps as a backup and played more than half of the snaps in Week 7 before an ankle injury hit him after Week 9.

Lawrence, a nose tackle, had two tackles in the first five games of the year before heading to injured reserve with a calf issue.

“I want them both to grow and play and help us obviously win and play good football,” Joseph said of the rookies Thursday. “Defensive line play in this league takes time also, because it’s a tough and strong-man spot, and most young guys struggle early to play the double-team blocks in this league because it’s grown men — it’s two-on-one most of the time.

“Both guys have gotten better each week. Leki was playing at a high level before he got hurt, so was Lawrence. They’re both back and hopefully they can help us with 10 to 12 snaps a game and shore up our front a little bit.”

Peko joined the Cardinals before the New England game after Joseph reached out to him following the loss of Peters for the year. As a free agent well into the regular season, Peko took phone calls from interested teams but ultimately felt Arizona gave him the best chance to impact a playoff contender.

After having what Joseph called a “perfect” first practice, it became clear that the veteran who knows the Cardinals DC from a 2014-16 stint with the Bengals and a 2017-18 run for the Broncos will make his impact on a young position group.

“A lot of the guys, they’re like sponges,” Peko said. “I’m just trying to share my knowledge of the game with him.”

Whether it’s Allen, Fotu or Lawrence, the opportunities for a key growth period are in front of the defensive line that expected to have Peters and Phillips leading the way.

And again, the players who are healthy at present are holding up relatively well considering the circumstances.

“We hope the next couple of weeks will be the healthiest we’ve been at that position and with some of those new additions as well, I’m excited about that group,” Kingsbury said.

Extra points

— Asked if receiver Larry Fitzgerald would have a chance to return Sunday against the Rams, Kingsbury would only say his veteran was still on the COVID-19 reserve as of Friday afternoon. That made it seem unlikely the Cardinals will have their future Hall of Famer this weekend.

— DeAndre Hopkins was concise when asked about his likely matchup against star cornerback Jalen Ramsey — “He’s a great football player” — but had more to say about Forbes listing his as a member of the magazine’s top 30 sports figures under 30 years old.

“That’s a prestigious category with a lot of great business people,” Hopkins said.

— Of how he got into his real estate business, Hopkins said buying and renting the first house he grew up in led to bigger things in the business world.

“I bought the first house that I grew up in. That was the first real estate purchase I made when I got into the NFL,” he said. “My mom’s mortgage of course was terrible, part of the system that doesn’t serve certain people … I paid that off once I got into the NFL and I started renting out that house to college students and that sparked my interest.”

— As for his entrepreneurial spirit, Hopkins said that’s been with him his entire life.

“I almost got kicked out of middle school for selling candy, true story.”

— One more from Hopkins on leading all receivers in NFL Pro Bowl voting and the game being played virtually instead of in person: “I think it’s cool. I think it’s safe. I wish we could go to Hawaii still and … play the video game from Hawaii. That would be cool.”

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