TEMPE, Ariz. — His calling card is special teams.
It’s what earned him his spot with the Arizona Cardinals and subsequent trips to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons.
But now Justin Bethel takes on a new role — the role of starting cornerback.
Bethel is expected to make his first career start, lining up opposite Patrick Peterson when the Cardinals visit the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Bethel is replacing Jerraud Powers, who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring injury Monday against Baltimore and is expected to miss up to two weeks, according to head coach Bruce Arians.
“Definitely want J.P. to come back and get healthy, but (I’m) looking forward to it,” Bethel said.
Bethel has been waiting for this opportunity ever since the Cardinals made him a 2012 sixth-round draft pick out of Presbyterian College.
While he excelled on special teams from Day 1, as a defensive back, Bethel started his career as a safety, then found himself splitting reps at both safety and corner before a permanent move to corner prior to last season.
And though Bethel didn’t play a single defensive snap in 2014, the Cardinals have long held his coverage skills in high regard.
“I have all the confidence in the world in Justin to handle the corner,” Arians said. “He should be plenty ready. He’s had a ton of snaps. He’s done a great job since he’s been in there. He’s got a pick-6, so he should be chomping at the bit.”
Bethel’s first snap on defense this season resulted in an interception of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick that Bethel returned for a touchdown in the Cardinals’ 47-7 Week 3 victory.
Bethel has since found playing time mainly in dime packages and when the Cardinals go to their seven-defensive back alignment.
“Earlier in the season, we had a bunch of packages for him. We just could never get him on the field with no huddle,” Arians explained. “When he’s been on the field, he’s been very good in the slot and out wide, so I don’t think there’s been any wait. It’s just the packages. If you’re in dime, you don’t get more than eight or nine snaps a game. If you’re in nickel, you get a lot more.”
Bethel said he relied more on his athleticism early in his career, but now with three years under his belt and free agency on the horizon, improved technique and extensive film watching is expected to make his insertion into the starting lineup a seamless one.
Besides, it’s not like his teammates don’t have confidence in him.
“The way our group works, we all believe that we can all play at a very high level, and that if somebody goes down and somebody comes in, we don’t have to make adjustments because that person is lacking,” Bethel said. “We definitely feel like we’re able to just go and fill-in in place of any guy that gets hurt.”
Added Peterson, “My message to Bethel is make sure that he trusts his technique and make sure he’s staying focused for 60 minutes. He has to understand that he’s going to get picked at early.”
Oh, he knows.
“Oh yeah, of course; but that’s what I want though,” Bethel said, smiling. “I want to them to (throw at me). Get me a couple of picks while I’m in there.”
And for those worried about Bethel’s start affecting his special teams play, don’t. The Cardinals, according to Arians, plan to have Bethel on the field for every special teams snap, as per usual.
Bethel leads the special teams unit in both tackles (five) and forced fumbles (two), including one last week against Baltimore that set up a score.
No Cardinals player has been better on special teams than Bethel, who’s led the group in tackles in each of the last two seasons.
Bethel is prepared for the dual role he faces this week.
“Just do a little extra running in practice,” he joked.
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