Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (21) and Justin Bethel have a discussion during last week's game in Philadelphia. Bethel's playing time will increase with the injury to safety Tyrann Mathieu.
Tyrann Mathieu participated in practice Wednesday.
The safety's season is over, yes, after he tore his ACL Sunday night. But Mathieu, who has been the emotional leader of the Cardinals, was with his teammates. Wearing a brace on his right knee, Mathieu did what he could to help secondary coaches Nick Rapone and Kevin Ross, tossing passes to his teammates as they warmed up in individual drills.
Coach isn't the title Mathieu wishes to have this time of year, but that's all he can do now. The Cards must not only find a way to replace his passionate leadership on the field, they must also figure out how they need to play defense without the Honey Badger.
"It's hard to lose a player like that," said cornerback Justin Bethel, who is in line to see the biggest bump in playing time with Jerraud Powers likely to take Mathieu's slot cornerback duties. "The biggest thing with (Ty), he makes those splash plays and he
has his passion for the game. It's hard to replace. But we all have our hands in the pile."
Coach Bruce Arians said Mathieu's ACL tear was "clean," and the hope is that Mathieu – like quarterback Carson Palmer this past offseason – will be able to do some work during offseason OTAs and/or minicamp.
But as he has done before, Arians repeated the phrase "next man up." That's expected to mean Tony Jefferson taking Mathieu's safety spot in the base defense and the Cards going with the three-cornerback-look of Patrick Peterson-Bethel-Powers in nickel. Safety D.J. Swearinger Sr. can slide into the role Jefferson had been playing, and the Cards move forward.
"Three different guys could do it in different packages," Arians said. "You miss the passion and the energy, but football-wise, we've got enough capable hands of replacing him."
The words "passion" and "energy" were uttered often Wednesday in describing Mathieu's impact. That was the initial feeling when news of his injury first came down, and the intangible aspect to losing the Pro Bowler is real.
But as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers – who faces the Cardinals Sunday -- said of the Mathieu-less defense, "at this point in the season, you kind of are who you are."
The Cardinals will still use five and six defensive backs a lot (and that doesn't include dollar linebacker-or-safety Deone Bucannon)
and they will still blitz. It isn't unlike the situation the Cards faced early last season when Mathieu wasn't playing coming off his 2013 knee rehab, or when he missed games late with a broken thumb. As Jefferson noted, "this is nothing new to me."
"With Ty's talent, you can't replace him, but I think we'll stay in the confines of our defense we've been running," Jefferson said. "We've got to still do what we do."
Powers said one of the things that made the Cardinals' secondary so good – and complete – was the different personalities within the group. Mathieu was the fire, and now, the Cards have to generate that elsewhere.
Mathieu's injury adds to the motivation, Powers said. But he emphasized it wasn't like the Cardinals' drive for a Super Bowl now becomes simply about Mathieu's absence.
"We're not going to just set aside everything else and say 'Everything is for Ty' because everybody around here has been putting in the work as well," Powers said.
The spotlight will be on the defense to prove it.
"We miss (Tyrann) already with his energy and his spirit," defensive tackle Cory Redding said. "God has blessed him with unbelievable talent and he can't hide it. He displays it every week on the field.
"That being said, we don't have that. So come in here, get on this train, we need you to learn this thing as fast as you can so we can go out on Sunday, turn it on, keep rolling and not even blink. People are going to think he's still there because we'll still be making plays."
The Cardinals make their annual holiday trek to Phoenix Children's Hospital