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Coming In Cold

Posted Oct 24, 2012

When a player goes down, his backup must quickly get in the flow of the game

Guard Rich Ohrnberger (72) was forced to come in at right guard after an injury to starter Adam Snyder last weekend.

Adam Snyder walked over to Rich Ohrnberger late in the first half Sunday in Minnesota and told the back-up offensive lineman to start getting ready.

Snyder had suffered a quadriceps contusion and knew he wouldn’t be able to return. With that moment’s notice, and the Cardinals’ defense still on the field, Ohrnberger started stretching.

It’s the life of a backup in the NFL. They put in the same hours as the starters but they never know when they’re going to see the field – if they see the field at all. They might give the starter a breather for a play or two. Or they might find themselves thrust into the rotation because of an injury. How much or if they’ll play is as easy to predict as the coin toss.

It’s happened all too often this season for the Cardinals. Some come in cold off the bench, while others are asked to play five or six times as many plays as they’re used to.

“It usually happens pretty quick,” said Ohrnberger, who played a season high 45 snaps in the loss to the Vikings. “You have to always be ready just in case. You keep your head in the game for any adjustments that they’re making on the fly, any changes to whatever plays that you’re running that week and additions. You just try to stay loose.”

Ohrnberger was the most recent Cardinal to be thrust onto the field and the timing just happened to work in his favor. With the defense on the field, he had time to warm up, which isn’t always the case.

Among the most high-profile cases of a backup replacing a starter was quarterback John Skelton taking over for Kevin Kolb in the fourth quarter against Buffalo on Oct. 14. In a matter of seconds, Kolb went from setting a franchise record for quarterback rushing yards in a game to lying on the ground with injured ribs.

During those same few seconds, Skelton went from the bench to the field.

“I think at the point that you actually see the starter going down, it’s almost like you don’t have enough time to worry about it or fret about it,” Skelton said. “I went in in the fourth quarter so you’re sitting around for three quarters cold. So you grab a ball and kind of warm up as fast as possible, grab your helmet and talk with the coaching staff, see what they got and then at that point, you’re in the game and you got to hit the ground running when you get in there.”

There’s so little time between the backups getting the nod to find their helmet and the next play starting that they don’t have time to get nervous. Ohrnberger said his warm up is the jog to the huddle as he’s trying to figure out if he has a few extra minutes to get acclimated because of a TV timeout or if the game will start as soon as he’s on the field.

When he’s out there, it takes Ohrnberger a couple plays to get his “pads warmed up a little bit” and defensive lineman Nick Eason about three or four plays to get his legs back.

For Cardinals such as Skelton, Ohrnberger and Eason, being called upon on short notice has just been a part of their career.

“It’s happened so much in my short career, at this point I’m used to it,” Skelton said.

Eason has been in that role for most of his 10-year career. In his last two years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, he started five games each season because of injuries to a starter. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3, he watched Cardinals nose tackle Darnell Dockett leave the game early in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury. After playing about 10 snaps until that point, Eason finished with 24 plays and a dislocated finger.

He started the next week against Miami and played 34 snaps.

“You got to come in and produce,” Eason said. “I know what the job that is required of me to do. You just have to stay prepared because once you lose sight of why you’re here and your job description, a guy goes down and you’re not mentally focused, then you let the team down.

“That’s why it’s important to always train to play like you’re the starter.”

William Powell knows what that means. He was already out of the St. Louis game with a minor concussion when Ryan Williams suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Over the next few weeks, Powell went from the scout team to the second team.

He’s buckled down on his film study since becoming one of two main running options for the Cardinals.

“When I’m on the scout team, it’s still a mindset to where you want to go out and play hard every day to get the defense a good look so they can play well and they can be ready for anything,” Powell said. “And now it’s more of playing as hard as you can and being mentally focused to get yourself prepared and ready to play as good as you can.”

Part of that is being in good enough shape to last more than a few plays.

In one game this season, Ohrnberger played just a snap on the offensive line. Eason has seen the field for less than 10 plays as Dockett’s reinforcement. That makes it all the harder when they’re called upon for extended periods of time. Part of it is age. At 32, Eason acknowledges he gets gassed easier than say Ohrnberger, who’s 26 despite a full head of grey hair.

Eason added about 40 minutes of extra cardio, usually the elliptical and running, to his daily routine to prepare himself for more playing time. Ohrnberger prefers a few post-practice sprints.

“Once you get things going, you’ll adapt,” Eason said. “It’s a huge difference to go from six to 10 (plays per game) to 30, 40, 50. You’re going to feel the difference, absolutely.”

As much as Skelton, Ohrnberger, Eason, Powell and tight end Rob Housler – who replaced Todd Heap in Week 2 – are leaned on to fill a void when needed, they also walk a fine line. They can’t get tired or injured because there’s usually nobody to back them up.

“You have to know your situation and if you get tired, there’s nobody behind me,” Eason said. “Don’t look to the sidelines, don’t look behind me.

“When I’m in, I’m stuck in there.”


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