TEMPE, Ariz. – Following the team picture on Wednesday, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians excused his players for the bye week, rewarding them for their effort and performance during a 6-2 start to the season with a five-day break.
Just about every player couldn’t wait for the extended rest.
The one notable exception was linebacker Alex Okafor.
“I’m itching. Everybody is excited about this bye week; I’m itching to get back,” he said.
Okafor has missed the past three weeks — sidelined in the wins over Baltimore and Cleveland plus a loss at Pittsburgh — due to a calf injury he suffered in the fourth quarter at Detroit.
Initially, Okafor said he was given a four-to-six-week timetable, “but I knew if I pressed it hard the bye week should be the longest it should be, and that’s how it was. Everything went according to plan, there’s no setbacks and that’s how it was.”
Okafor added he was able to practice some Tuesday, when Arians put the rookies and young players through a brief workout; and as it turned out, the only on-field work of the week.
The team will reconvene next Tuesday.
“I feel good,” Okafor said. “I think I might’ve been able to push the last week to play, but there was no need. I feel great, though, out here. I had a couple of reps yesterday and everything felt fine, so it shouldn’t be an issue going along.
That’s good news.
Okafor is arguably the Cardinals’ best pass rusher.
He shares the team lead in both sacks (two) and quarterback pressures (seven) and is tied for second in quarterback hits despite playing only five of the season’s eight games.
In 13 games a year ago, Okafor led the team with eight sacks, 20 quarterback pressures and 19 quarterback hits after returning from an early-season injury.
Rushing the quarterback is one of the few areas of concerns the Cardinals have as they take a step back this week and evaluate their first half.
The Cardinals’ 13 sacks ranks 22nd in the league, tied with four other teams; and are the fewest among their fellow competitors in the NFC West.
“Everybody was saying trade for a pass rusher,” Arians said, referring to Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline, before turning his attention to Okafor. “I don’t think there’s a better one on the market. We just had one in the training room. I think he’ll add a lot to our mix.”
Told of Arians’ comments moments later in the locker room, Okafor said, “He’s always believed in me, man. There was never a doubt in that in my mind, so it was just even more encouraging. Honestly, I’ve just got to go back there and produce and make his words true.”
Of course, nothing will be handed back to him. As Okafor told reporters, he must re-earn his spot.
Rookie Markus Golden started the three games Okafor missed, registering seven tackles, including three for loss, and one quarterback hit.
The Cardinals also added veteran Dwight Freeney, who was signed shortly after Okafor got hurt.
With Okafor’s impending return, the Cardinals like the depth they have at outside linebacker.
“It’s great for us, man,” Okafor said. “To have that kind of depth in the outside ‘backers room (which also includes LaMarr Woodley, Kareem Martin and Shaq Riddick), it’s truly a blessing just because we know we can leave everything out there on the field every single play and not be afraid for somebody to come back in and there won’t be no drop-off of production. That’s what we’ve always tried to get towards.”
Though frustrated with having to sit and watch, Okafor did enjoy seeing his teammates’ success, specifically Freeney, who recorded a sack in each of the past two weeks, placing him 19th on the NFL’s all-time list with 113.5.
Freeney used his patented spin move to help him get to the quarterback.
Might Okafor try the technique for himself now?
“The thing about the spin move is you got to have it in the toolbox. You can’t just bring it out of thin air, and I don’t know if I’ve got that yet,” he said. “I’ll stick to what I do best.”
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