By: Ed Cole
It’s been a while since Tyrann Mathieu has seen any game action on an NFL football field.
From all accounts, that extended time off has come to an end, after Mathieu was taken off the PUP – or physically unable to perform – list on Tuesday.
Prior to his late season injury against the Rams, Mathieu was having a Defensive Rookie of the Year type season. Mathieu started 11 of the 13 games he played in during the 2013 season, and had 68 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and nine passes defensed.
Mathieu’s world came crashing around him on that fateful December afternoon against the Rams, but now he’s back and ready to take the field with his teammates as they prepare to end training camp on Friday and welcome in the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football this coming Sunday.
Mathieu, as you can imagine, is ready and raring to get back to crunching some helmets and pads, but he’s smartly taking the right approach to his return – channeling that inner explosive feeling and taking it slow.
“I’m still gonna take my time and go about this,” Mathieu said. “I’m not gonna try to rush it, but it definitely feels great to be back out there.”
It’ll take some time for Mathieu to get re-acclimated to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ system, get the feel for everything and the feel back with his teammates, but Mathieu’s fine with that. The last thing he wants to do is cause a rift in the Cardinals’ defensive boat that’s already set sail.
“Obviously, I’m gonna work my way back in, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes,” Mathieu said. “I want to earn my right on the field, I just don’t want anybody to give it to me.”
“I’m just gonna go out there, try and work as hard as I can [and] hope my progression goes well,” Mathieu said.
Bowles’ scheme and his system is an all-out attacking one, which has his players putting constant pressure on the opponent for the entire game. The defensive players have to be ready to go full speed in that attack mode.
That top speed begins in OTAs, minicamp and in training camp. If you’re not up to handling that speed, you’ll get lost in what Bowles wants to get done.
Mathieu has to get himself back up to the level he performed at last season before the injury.
“I guess after the first play I’m out there and I realize I can do it, I’ll be comfortable with it,” Mathieu said. “I’m just waiting for that moment where I really get tested and I’ll know for sure whether I’m the same player or whether I have to pick it up a little bit.”
Mathieu consulted with linebacker Desmond Bishop about bouncing back from a major injury. Bishop suffered through a similar knee injury – which also ended his season – back in 2013 when he was a member of the Vikings.
“He said after that first moment and you realize that you can do it, it’s all downhill from there,” Mathieu said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Head coach Bruce Arians remarked that “it’s always good to have that smile back on the field,” when talking about Mathieu.
The smile and demeanor of Mathieu is great to have back, but Arians is looking to see more out of his prized safety.
“His overall game speed,” Arians said. “There’s no limps or any of those types of things, just playing at game speed.”
“For him to play on Monday night [versus the Chargers], he’s gonna have to get some game speed before then.”
“Practice speed is one thing, game speed is another,” Arians said.
Mathieu will wear a knee brace for the entire season. There’s no telling if that will affect his game speed or not. Mathieu isn’t too excited about wearing it, but it’s a necessary part of his comeback.
“I don’t really like [it], but I have to follow certain guidelines,” Mathieu said.
The Cardinals were willing to overlook Mathieu’s checkered past in lieu of drafting him No. 69 in the 2013 NFL Draft, because they knew what kind of talent lied inside of Mathieu.
Now with Mathieu finally being able to rejoin his teammates, he can show just what he’s made of again.
“He’s a game-changer,” Arians said. “He’s always getting his hands on balls.”
“That’s things you look for in practice, is he getting back and getting his hands on balls, tipping balls, intercepting balls and the speed in which he’s playing,” Arians said.
Having a player like Mathieu, with all the talent in the world, makes game planning easy on defense, because the aforementioned talent just shines through and you really don’t have to worry about him when he’s on the field, according to Arians.
“You don’t have to substitute because he has corner ability, “ Arians said. “He’s a safety that can cover, he can play in the slot, he can go out wide, you can stay in your base package and you still have three corners out there with him.”
There’s no question the Cardinals defense has been in flux, perhaps like no other defense in the league. They lost their two starting linebackers from a year ago in Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, and will now be without defensive tackle Darnell Dockett after he suffered a knee injury, which requires season ending surgery.
With all these things piling up on the defense, the silver lining, if you will, is the return of Mathieu to the secondary, something defensive end Calais Campbell is happy to see.
“That’s a good sign, that guy is special, “ Campbell said. “You can see it in his eyes he’s just excited that he’s back [and] you see a confidence in his look.”
“I’m excited to watch that guy play,” Campbell said. “He’s gonna be a great player in this league for a long time to come [and] I’m happy to be teammates with him.”
Mathieu’s ultimate goal is to be ready for the season opener on Sept. 8, when Monday Night Football and the San Diego Chargers come to University of Phoenix Stadium.
“I think my trainers and my coaches, they’ve been working together,” Mathieu said. “Obviously, they knew that was my goal, so they’ve been real thoughtful about me through this whole process.”