Dealing Cards: Tyrann Mathieu is ‘ready to cut it loose’ and return to slot

Oct 3, 2016, 5:14 PM | Updated: 6:21 pm

Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) looks at the replay board during the second half ...

Arizona Cardinals free safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) looks at the replay board during the second half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams , Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — For the season’s first four games, Tyrann Mathieu had made steady progress in his return from a torn ACL, at times showing flashes of the dynamic player he was before the injury.

On Monday, he said he’s ready to assume his former role in the slot, especially if current slot defender Tyvon Branch’s groin injury proves to be too troublesome.

Branch left Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Rams early, and was listed as a “DNP” in the initial injury report for Thursday’s tilt with the San Francisco 49ers.

“That’s a no-brainer,” Mathieu said of taking Branch’s spot. “We’re 1-3 man, so there’s not really time for me to sit back and play it slow. I feel good; I feel great, so I look forward to wherever coach puts me at.

“But if I’ve got anything to say about it, I’ll be back in my normal spot.”

Mathieu played that role to aplomb last season, and was in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year as his combination of speed, ferocity and instincts allowed him to be a terror as a blitzer, stout as a run defender and effective covering receivers and tight ends down the field.

Since he’s returned this season, the team has mostly had him line up as a high safety, with him only occasionally making appearances in the box near the line of scrimmage. His stats of 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and one forced fumble are not embarrassing, though they are also not what everyone is accustomed to seeing from the player whose nickname is the “Honey Badger.”

All along defensive coordinator James Bettcher has said that was done in order to ease Mathieu back into things, and that when he was officially back, his role would change.

It looks like now may be that time.

“I’m ready to cut it loose,” Mathieu said. “My expectations are extremely high for myself, I’ll never feel sorry for myself.

“So the thing is, it’s time for me to get back to what I’m doing. I feel comfortable out there. It’s time for me to start making plays.”

That’s a message head coach Bruce Arians said he needed to receive from Mathieu in order to know that the player is, in fact, ready play full throttle. So, has Mathieu given that message to the coach?

“Well I just did,” he said.

Often times Arians uses the media to get messages across to his players, and now the inverse appears to be true, too.

Turnabout is fair play, after all.

Injury update

You figure the injury list would be rather extensive the day after a game, and that is absolutely the case here. A look at the official injury report shows 10 Cardinals listed along with 15 49ers. Among the most serious injuries for the Cardinals are QB Carson Palmer, who is in the league’s concussion protocol, Branch, running back Chris Johnson (groin), and defensive linemen Josh Mauro (pec) and Ed Stinson (toe). Tight end Darren Fells (shoulder) and punter Drew Butler (left calf) also did not practice.

Nkemdiche is feeling good

Though he had what Arians called his best week of practice last week, first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche was once again inactive on game day. It was the third straight game he has not played in, though on Monday, the defensive lineman said he is feeling good.

“I feel like I’m definitely back to 100 percent,” he said. “My ankle is healed. I feel like I’m ready to go.”

Nkemdiche was spotted at practice Monday with a significant amount of tape on both of his ankles.

The rookie’s growth has been stunted due to a high ankle sprain suffered early in training camp. He missed a considerable amount of reps and preseason action, and when pressed about what’s been hampering the player’s development, Arians consistently pointed to time lost, not effort or ability.

Nkemdiche admitted the ankle held him back more than he thought it would.

“It did,” he said. “Really, getting those reps are really crucial. Coach Buck (Brentson Buckner) and Coach, they both just really helped me progress and helped me and let me get those reps in practice. I keep getting them, and keep progressing my game, and keep getting better and looking for ways to evolve.”

If Nkemdiche is at 100 percent, it would figure that his chances of getting on the field soon would be better. He said he “can’t wait” for the opportunity, though is unsure if it will come Thursday against the 49ers. Arizona’s defensive line is deep, and just because the rookie has a bright future does not mean he is the best option in the present.

“We’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see me out there if I’m out there.”

Rucker is back on the field

Frostee Rucker hurt his knee in Cardinals’ Week 1 loss to the New England Patriots, and since then had been unable to practice.

Until Monday, when he got a limited participant in the team’s walk-through.

“Felt great,” he said. “It felt good to be back in the huddle with the guys and running around a little bit and just taking some reps and easing myself back in there.”

Arians said Rucker looked good on Monday, but with the caveat that it was a walk-through.

“There was no running involved, so hopefully he can make it back,” he said.

Rucker said he would like to play Thursday, but is not sure what the coaches have in mind. However, he said he will prepare as if he is going to take the field.

“I’ll just wait until game day to know,” he said.

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Dealing Cards: Tyrann Mathieu is ‘ready to cut it loose’ and return to slot