Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, sporting a knee brace that he hopes to not use next season, plays in his final game of the 2016 season against the Saints.
Tyrann Mathieu comes to the Cardinals' practice facility on a nearly daily basis, rehabbing his body from what's left of his 2016 ailments.
The safety has been working out basically since he was put on injured reserve in early December. He's put on about 10 pounds, in a preventative effort to gird his body against future injury. If he loses any lateral quickness, he acknowledges he'll have to go back to his normal weight.
"But I'm trying to take the proper steps to hopefully deal with the situation," Mathieu said, in reference to his injuries. "I am who I am. It comes with it."
Mathieu's four-year NFL career has been filled with the highest of highs – an impressive rookie year, a spectacular
all-pro third season – and some crippling lows – two ACL tears, three seasons ending on IR. Coming off his 2015 ACL tear, Mathieu started the 2016 season playing free safety deep down the field. It was not where he wanted to be, not where he is most effective, and not where he will play despite his 5-foot-9 frame.
Defensive coordinator James Bettcher, during an appearance on last week's "Big Red Rage" radio show, reiterated the Cardinals' stance that once Mathieu heals this offseason, he'll be ready to take back his playmaking spot as a slot cornerback and safety near the line of scrimmage.
Mathieu did that a few games into what became a 10-game season for him, but playing with an unwanted brace following his ACL surgery and later dealing with a shoulder injury, he never made the impact expected.
"Every down we're going to find a way to get (Tyrann) close to the ball in the nickel position, blitzing outside, inside, from the safety position, a guy who will cover the best slot player on the opposite side of the field," Bettcher said.
That's exactly what Mathieu wants.
"It's easier to go to sleep in the back end," Mathieu said. "Some guys, they play the middle of the field extremely well, but I don't necessarily think that's something I take pride in. I take pride in being close to the football and close to the action."
Only some of the injuries Mathieu has absorbed have much to do with mixing it up with bigger players near the line of scrimmage. He broke his thumb at the end of the 2014 season, and then came the 2016 shoulder problem – the injury that forced him to IR.
But neither ACL tears had anything to do with a smaller man on defense. His first came when he tried to fight through a return of a free kick following a safety, and his knee gave when piled on by a handful of tacklers. His second knee injury was non-contact, landing after an interception.
Mathieu said he never had any injury issues his entire football-playing life before reaching the NFL. His issues then were off-the-field. Now it is tight ends in coverage and pulling guards.
"I have new challenges I have to face," he said.
As Mathieu proved in 2015, he is a dynamic playmaker the Cardinals need. The Cardinals ranked high in a few defensive categories this season, and in the secondary, Patrick Peterson was a Pro Bowler while fellow safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger had excellent seasons.
But Mathieu could see the missing splash plays he helped provide.
"Clearly that wasn't on tape this year," Mathieu said. "It made me feel bad, obviously. It made me go in the tank a little bit. All I can do is control what is in front of me and hopefully get back to that level."
Images of the Cardinals celebrating after big plays in 2016