Goal accomplished: Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu to play Week 1

Sep 8, 2016, 5:13 PM | Updated: Sep 13, 2016, 8:42 am
Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) during an NFL preseason football game against the...
Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) during an NFL preseason football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. – The Honey Badger is back.

How do the Arizona Cardinals know this? Ask around.

“It’s about two interceptions every day (in practice),” head coach Bruce Arians said. “He flies around and makes every check and has the energy and the passion that he always has.”

“He had his hand on three balls today in practice,” added defensive coordinator James Bettcher. “He’s running around practice, playing fast, doing a great job communicating. He’s where he left off last year.”

And where safety Tyrann Mathieu left off in 2015 earned him his first Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro honors after recording 89 tackles, a sack, five interceptions (one returned for a score), 16 passes defensed and a forced fumble; all of which he did in 14 games before a season-ending knee injury in Week 15 at Philadelphia.

Missing those final two games of the regular season and then the entire postseason run to the NFC Championship Game was tough, but come Sunday when the Cardinals host the New England Patriots in the season opener, Mathieu will be on the field, likely starting nearly nine months after tearing the ACL in his right knee.

“That was the goal all along, all through rehab, this whole offseason and then coming back in training camp for a couple of practices, making a few plays, so I’ve been having some highlights along the way,” he said, standing at his locker Thursday. “I always knew I would be ready. I worked with some great doctors. Our trainers did a great job, so I always knew I would be ready for game 1.”

This is the second major knee injury in three years Mathieu is returning from. In 2014, he rebounded from two torn ligaments in his left knee suffered as a rookie. That season Mathieu played with a brace, one that appeared to limit his play-making abilities.

Mathieu is no longer wearing a brace on the left knee, but now he’ll play with one on the right knee.

“Last time, it was the first time he was ever hurt,” Arians said. “This time, it was a lot easier. He’s played in a brace before, and it’s a better brace this time. Better technology, so it’s easier for him.”

Mathieu had said over the summer that he wouldn’t play against the Patriots unless he was 100 percent healthy. Fast-forward to Thursday, and when asked if he was 100 percent, Mathieu paused four seconds before responding, “I’ll be out there, so we’ll see.”

It should be noted Mathieu has not shown up on the injury report this week, no doubt a good sign.

Even at less than 100 percent, Mathieu, who said he expects to line up “all over the place” on the field, is better than many fully healthy players. His talents and football instincts are that good. Plus, his mere presence should have a dramatic impact on the team, the fans and atmosphere in general.

“Just from a moral standpoint, losing him last year was like a kick to the stomach,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “We’re glad that’s behind us, and we’re glad he’s back 100 percent. He’s going to be out there playing with his hair on fire like he always does on Sunday.”

Said cornerback Patrick Peterson: “I am ecstatic to have my, I guess, my partner in crime back on the field with me. Looking for nothing but big plays for him.”

Mathieu, who is the game’s highest-paid safety after signing a five-year contract extension last month, expects nothing less out of himself as well.

“If I’m out there, I’m going to make some plays,” he said.

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