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Bigger And Stronger - And Healthy - Zach Allen Makes His Mark

Defensive lineman finally showing why he can be core player for Cardinals

Defensive lineman Zach Allen makes a tackle during last week's game against the Rams.
Defensive lineman Zach Allen makes a tackle during last week's game against the Rams.

Zach Allen considered it for a moment: What would he, if he could, tell the 2019 rookie Zach Allen who had just walked into the Cardinals' building for the first time.

"Definitely hit the weight room a lot faster," the Cardinals defensive lineman said. "Definitely do a lot more neck exercises."

A small smile comes across Allen's face. Maybe more neck exercises would've saved him from a serious neck injury that basically cost him his rookie season. The Boston College third-round pick always needed to add bulk, to go from a college end to a 3-4 end in the Cardinals' scheme.

Maybe he would have had the confidence he has now much sooner, while he's playing the best football of his career with the unknown – he is in the last year of his contract – waiting after the season.

"I wish I developed that confidence a little earlier, but at least we've gotten to where we've gotten," Allen said. "Some guys never figure that out."

The Cardinals head to Carolina Sunday without starting nose tackle Rashard Lawrence, who was playing well but suffered a hand injury that needed surgery this week. Defensive end J.J. Watt is nursing his calf issue, although defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is optimistic Watt will play.

More will fall on Allen, who week in and week out plays the most defensive line snaps for the Cardinals and did so last year despite playing with basically no ligaments in an injured ankle.

"It's night and day to his rookie year until now," said fellow defensive lineman Michael Dogbe, a training partner of Allen's since before the two were 2019 draft picks of the Cardinals. "He's somebody on our D-line we can all count on. He's a leader for us now, someone we can count on.

"He is self-motivated. He attacked the rehab process, all of them. He wants to be great."

Playing inside, Allen through three games has been charted with the second-best pass rush-win rate among all defensive tackles, behind the Rams' Aaron Donald. Donald is at 25 percent; Allen is at 19 percent, tied with the Jets' Quinnen Williams.   

"It wasn't how he played or how smart he was, it was just his body," Joseph said. "He's changed his body so he's making more plays in the trenches. That's where he has to play. As a rusher, he is winning. The ball is coming out fairly fast but he's winning his one-on-ones for the most part."

The body needed muscle and girth. Allen knows that. "In college you're playing outside and you think 'Oh I'm this big, bad guy' and then you get to the NFL and you're playing more inside and you're playing against grown men," he said.

And while Allen grimaces when the idea that injuries have been an realistic excuse, he acknowledged few understood how serious his neck injury was, or how the high-ankle sprain from his second season never quite healed as needed and became a problem in 2021.

The irony is Allen had his best season last year, adding four sacks and an interception around his clear elevation to the team's top defensive lineman (thanks to Watt's shoulder injury), all while playing on a bad ankle.

"It was like, 'I'm injured -- this can't be happening,' " Allen said. "It was an ignorance-was-bliss situation but it was also like we-have-no-ligaments situation, basically playing with a broken leg."

All Allen wants to do is play the season unscathed. His contract situation? He's got an agent for that, and besides, he feels like football takes up all his time in-season to think much about next year. There is also the matter of trying to help anchor a defense that has started slow three straight games and can't afford to any longer.

The most important thing about what he tell rookie Zach Allen? Don't ride the roller coaster. Look only ahead.

"You want to Monday morning quarterback it, but we're here now," Allen said. "Now, I want to kind of prove what I can do with a clean slate."

Images of the Cardinals practicing at the Dignity Health Sports Complex before the Week 4 regular season matchup against the Carolina Panthers