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Membership In The No Fly Zone

Posted Nov 6, 2015

Not only has Cardinals secondary excelled on the field, it has grown close off it

True families don’t excommunicate a member over trivial matters, so Deone Bucannon can breathe easy.

The second-year Cardinal was drafted as a safety and drifts toward the secondary huddle to get amped pregame. His locker is positioned between safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson in the row of defensive backs.

So what if Bucannon plays exclusively inside linebacker for the Cardinals these days? He’s not ready to give up his standing as a member of the heralded and tight-knit No Fly Zone.

“It’s like a little DB family,” Bucannon said. “And I know I’m playing linebacker now, but I still say I’m part of the DBs. They let me be a part of them, so it’s cool.”

Position groups often double as social circles in the NFL because the players spend so much time together. Even so, it’s rare to see one as close as the Cardinals’ secondary.  While this is high-profile work, it’s still a job, and there’s nothing wrong with players treating their teammates like co-workers instead of friends. That’s not the case with the defensive backs.

“We’re a real close, tight-knit group,” Bucannon said, “and it’s not like that everywhere.”

The cohesiveness grew organically, and at the outset it didn’t look like a sure thing. Some of the defensive backs are still in their early 20s, while others are pushing 30. They come from diverse backgrounds and made it to the team by different paths.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson was the top-5 pick out of LSU who was earmarked for stardom early on and has fulfilled that considerable potential. Mathieu became a recognizable college standout for his play-making at LSU, but fell to the third round of the draft after getting booted from the Tigers for marijuana use. He’s well-liked in the locker room and has transformed into one of the NFL’s best defensive backs.

Cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Rashad Johnson are the veterans of the group. Jefferson went undrafted but has turned himself into a key piece on defense. Justin Bethel is the Pro Bowl special teamer who doubles as a backup cornerback.

While the personalities and paths are varied, the players point to one reason why they get along so well.

“Nobody in here is selfish,” Powers said. “Everybody thinks just as highly of the next. I think that’s the main thing. Pat can easily act like he’s better than the next. Or me and Rashad can because we’re older. Or Ty can because he has a huge following. But everybody’s even-keel and treats one another the same. I think that helps the energy and the bond. Plus off the field, everybody hangs out, which helps on the field.”

***

Peterson, Mathieu, Johnson (Alabama) and Powers (Auburn) all came from the Southeastern Conference, and college football is a never-ending conversation. Jefferson played at Oklahoma, Bucannon at Washington State and Bethel at Presbyterian.

“Tony and Buc, those guys, they’re messing up the trend,” a smiling Mathieu said. “For the most part we like the SEC guys.”

The SEC quartet jokingly talks that game, but the secondary is unique because it is absent of cliques. It’s common for the entire group to hang out at the team’s practice facility and then some more after the workday.

The players like to converge to watch Monday and Thursday Night Football or go out to eat. They have a long-running group text message which allows for nonstop communication.

“With us not being that many years removed from college, we still have that college feel, as being each other’s brother’s keeper, looking out for each other,” Peterson said. “That’s the feel that we have right now and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Powers broke down why the dynamic works so well.

“You’ve got Pat who is always happy,” Powers said. “Rashad’s normally in a good mood. One day I’m happy, then I’m not. Ty thinks the world is against him. Tony’s a video gamer. It’s just a mixture of personalities that just balances everybody out.”

***

The Cardinals are 6-2 in large part due to the play of the secondary. The team is tied for the NFL lead with 13 interceptions, 12 of which have come from the defensive backs. Mathieu, Jefferson and Bethel have each returned an interception for a touchdown, while Johnson enters the bye week tied for second in the league with four picks. Peterson doesn’t have gaudy numbers, but that’s because quarterbacks are rarely challenging him.

In case any of them think about getting a big head, the others are always there to bring them back to earth. To wit:

-- Powers after Jefferson’s interception return for a touchdown against the Bears: “Out of the seven DBs that we have, Tony’s probably the least athletic one. Not saying that’s a bad thing, because we’ve got some pretty athletic guys in the room, but he’s probably the least athletic.”

-- Mathieu on Johnson’s second of two picks against the Lions, which Mathieu deflected into the air and was trying to swoop under: “We officially came up with a new rule. Any time a defensive back deflects the ball, (he) has to have the opportunity to catch it. Rashad did not give me the opportunity to catch that ball again.”

-- Even on topics unrelated to football, the guys can’t escape each other’s wrath. Bucannon innocently discussed his Southern California upbringing after a recent practice when fellow San Diegan Jefferson jumped in: “I live in Miramar, I live in Coronado. You don’t even know where you’re from! He doesn’t even know where he’s from!” But then, after a few more moments of good-natured quibbling, honesty from Jefferson: “He’s my little brother."

-- Jefferson got it back during the team’s week-long stay at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Peterson outed Jefferson as being afraid there was a ghost in the room. As Jefferson explained himself, Peterson – and Powers – chimed in with chuckles.

With mass movement a common sight in the NFL, it’s pretty remarkable how stable the defensive backs group has been. Peterson, Johnson, Powers, Mathieu, Bethel and Jefferson have all been together for three years, and Bucannon the last two. From one-upmanship in practice to dialed-in communication on game days, the familiarity breeds success.

“We help raise each other’s level of competition,” Peterson said. “When we’re out there, we’re flying around like a band of brothers.”

Johnson, Powers and Bethel are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season and Jefferson is restricted. The group hopes to remain intact, but that’s not always reality in this business.

No matter how the offseason goes, the friendships will endure. The Cardinals have one of the most talented defensive backs groups in the league, but it’s their bond which is truly special.

“It makes you want the other to succeed, no matter if it’s here or something happens and you have to go to another team,” Powers said. “It makes you want the best for that person. That’s all you want as a player. In this business, I’ve played with so many different (defensive backs). In Indianapolis, from my rookie year to my fourth year, I probably had one guy that was on that team with me (the whole time).

“Everything changes so much. You see so many people come and go. For the fact that the main core guys have been together since I’ve been here, and this is my third year, you don’t normally see that unless you’re with a draft class.”

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