TEMPE, Ariz. — On Wednesday afternoon, the Arizona Cardinals took the practice field for the first time since safety Tyrann Mathieu was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
It was a situation no one wanted to find themselves in, but football can be a dangerous game, and injuries come with the territory.
Just days after the news broke, Mathieu — who was on the sideline throwing footballs to teammates during the portion of practice that was open to the media — was very much on everyone’s minds. Quarterback Carson Palmer admits there’s an emotional hangover that followed the defensive back’s injury.
“There will be (one) until this season’s over,” Palmer said. “No doubt. You hate to see it. It’s unsettling. It makes you feel sick to your stomach sometimes.
“But to see him out there and the attitude that he has, you don’t want to pity him. You don’t want to feel sorry for him, and he doesn’t want that. But he’s not moping around and ‘woe is me’ attitude whatsoever. He’s the same Ty he was last Wednesday when he was full go. So that makes it easier, just to not feel so bad about his situation.”
It’s never easy for a player to get over a teammate’s injury, and when that teammate is as beloved as Mathieu, it’s even tougher.
One of the team’s best defensive players as well as an emotional leader, Mathieu will be difficult to replace.
There is a reason he was being talked about as a possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate, after all. Mathieu’s season ends with him collecting 89 combined tackles, five interceptions, one sack, one forced fumble and 16 passes defensed.
But just because replacing him will not be easy does not mean it can’t or won’t be done, as the Cardinals have little choice in the matter.
“Just the next man up,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “There are a number of personnel groups. Three different guys could do it in different packages. You miss the passion and the energy, but football-wise, we’ve got enough capable hands of replacing him.”
When talking about it Monday, Arians said cornerback Jerraud Powers would move inside to take Mathieu’s place as the nickel cornerback, which then elevated Justin Bethel to a starting cornerback role. Other players, including D.J. Swearinger and Tony Jefferson, will also be expected to help pick up the slack.
It’s a tall order, replacing the 5-foot-9, 186-pound Mathieu, but the Cardinals have no choice but to try. For Powers, at least, the move is one he is comfortable with as he played inside for much of last season.
“You can take more risks — it’s almost like you’re protected, in a way,” he said of the difference in roles. “You see Ty flying around making a lot of plays, he calculates and knows when it’s a good time to take his gambles within the system. I’ve been playing the nickel since I was in college; I played it in Indy. So it’s not like it’s a new situation.”
Last season in the nickel, Powers tallied a career-best three interceptions while also recording his first career sack. Now in his seventh NFL season, the veteran said playing in the slot is more fun.
“You get to blitz, you get to gamble, you get to do this or that,” he said. “So it’s definitely a bigger role for me, to having to play outside and inside, and I think everybody’s roles in the secondary has increased since Ty went out just because of what he brought to the table.”
Indeed, part of what makes Mathieu special is he can play cornerback, nickel corner and safety while also being an effective blitzer. A relentless competitor who plays a style that belies his stature, it will take, as Arians noted, multiple players to fill the void.
With Powers moving inside, Bethel slides into his spot on the outside. A fourth-year pro who was just named to this third consecutive Pro Bowl as a special teams player, Bethel has improved as a cornerback to a point where the Cardinals are confident he can match up with receivers on an every-down basis.
This season, playing more defense than ever before, Bethel has notched 31 combined tackles, one interception and seven passes defensed.
“I definitely feel prepared, and I think as a team we’re prepared for it and we’ll be able to go out there and still play at a high level,” he said.
Some may be hoping the Cardinals, while losing something with Mathieu’s skill and emotional leadership, could build something from the hardship. Him being lost for the season, they believe, could turn into a rallying point for the team.
Arians said he did not think that was the case. His team does not need extra motivation.
“The Super Bowl is the rallying cry,” he said.
He’s probably right, though it does not hurt to have a little more reason to win, right?
“For us, we’re definitely playing for (Mathieu),” Powers said. “Our goals and our motivation, it just adds to it. We’re just not going to set aside everything else and say ‘everything’s for Ty’ because everyone around here has been putting in the work as well, but with him not being able to battle with us on the field, we definitely have a little extra motivation — especially in the secondary.”
The secondary, which is easily the strength of Arizona’s defense, is very, very close.
“We all got our hands in the pile, and it’s just extra motivation now for us to go out there and win it all for him because he’s been having a great year, and we wanted him to be a part of this,” Bethel added. “He’s definitely in our hearts now and we’re definitely out there playing for him now.”