ARIZONA CARDINALS

Cardinals DC: Tyrann Mathieu will be ‘as close to the ball’ as possible in 2017

Jan 19, 2017, 7:49 PM | Updated: Jan 20, 2017, 11:22 am

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)

Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher joined Ron Wolfley and Paul Calvisi on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Big Red Rage on Wednesday. He discussed the Cardinals’, the NFL playoffs, the season that just passed and the season ahead.

Here are a few notable excerpts from his sit-down.

BADGER BACK TO NICKEL

Safety Tyrann Mathieu began 2016 playing as a deep safety as the Cardinals attempted to ease him back from his ACL tear from the season before.

Even when he moved back into his natural slot position, he wasn’t the same. Ultimately, a shoulder injury derailed his season. Mathieu recorded just 35 tackles and one interception in 10 games played during 2016.

Bettcher has no doubt Mathieu will benefit from his usual offseason of work to make a comeback. The goal: Returning to his 2015 form.

“Your expectations for him will never exceed those for himself. He’s his harshest critic, he loves to play the game, he just wants to make a difference, period,” Bettcher said.

As for where Mathieu is playing, don’t expect the Honey Badger to be playing deep safety to start 2017.

“(He’s) a guy that will be back as close to the ball as we can get him, period,” Bettcher added. “Every down we’re going to find a way to get him close to the ball in the nickel position, blitzing outside, inside, from the safety position, a guy who will cover the best slot player on the opposite side of the field — a guy, if you look back, we matched up with a lot of tight ends two years ago.”

ROOKIE LESSONS

It was clear in 2016 that first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche had a learning curve to tune himself to.

Early on, he was simply benched. An ankle injury had something to do with it, as did the Cardinals’ defensive line depth, but toward the end of the year, head coach Bruce Arians made it clear his defensive tackle had some growing up to do.

Arizona saw progress late in the season, even if Nkemdiche closed 2016 with just a single tackle.

“I think as a young player coming into this league, one of the things you have to learn quick is how to manage your day-to-day routine,” Bettcher said. “That day-to-day routine might be how you take care of your body, it might be stuff you do off the field, it might be commitments off the field, it might be how much you’re watching tape off the field, out of the meeting room. It may be what you’re doing inside the building and how you’re doing what you’re doing inside the building.

“Robert had to learn that,” Bettcher added. “Toward the ned of the year, you saw a guy that started to grow and started to figure out some of those things that’s necessary to use the skills and talents he has to play in this league.”

MR. UNDERRATED

Injuries to Tyvon Branch and Mathieu gave other Arizona defensive backs opportunity this past season.

First to step up was Tony Jefferson. Second was reserve D.J. Swearinger, the fourth-year pro who latched onto the Cardinals after two busy seasons with the Houston Texans.

Bettcher heaped praise on Swearinger for his work ethic.

“You see how passionate he is when he plays. He’s a sparkplug, he flies around. A guy that really assumed towards really the second half of the season — last three-quarters of the season — assumed a core role as a communicator on the back end for us,” Bettcher said.

“You saw him during snaps, he’s running up to the linebackers, he’s running all over the place, just making sure we’re on the same page. I haven’t been around a guy, to be honest with you, that has studied as much tape as he has,” the coordinator said. “Our guys all have iPads that have tape on it. You look at the amount of time he spends watching tape. It is crazy at how much tape. He just loves the game.”

PREDICTING THE MOST IMPROVED CARDINAL

Need a pick for the Cardinals’ most improved player next season?

Bettcher is taking $LB Deone Bucannon.

“I think this will be a year that I anticipate him having not just a good year, a great year,” the defensive coordinator said.

So how can Bucannon improve after recording 91 tackles with four pass deflections in his third year, which was shortened to 13 games due to injury?

“His eyes. That’s just playing the position. Being down close to the box, seeing those offensive linemen and the back. When an offensive lineman pulls or a back steps this way, and the difference in being able to read your keys more consistently. That is honestly just playing the game more,” Bettcher said.

“He has instincts, he has speed. He can go punch or strike 300-pound offensive linemen. And he flies around and plays the game with as much passion as anybody. He just needs to play the position more.”

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