Justin Pugh and the rest of the Cardinals’ offensive linemen do everything possible to avoid injuries.
They stretch before practices and games, schedule weekly massage and acupuncture sessions, and dip in cold tubs to promote recovery. No matter the preventative measure, things still go wrong.
“There’s no way to prepare, like stretch or acupuncture, to change a hand from breaking,” Pugh said.
The Cardinals’ starting right guard has missed the past two games after fracturing his hand during a pass-block set against the Vikings. The good news? Pugh is expected to play on Sunday against the Chiefs, which would give the Cardinals their full complement of starting linemen for the fourth time in nine games this season.
The bad news? It might not take long for a new injury to pop up somewhere along the offensive line.
“It’s hard when you’re talking about being in the trenches,” coach Steve Wilks said. “Every play you’re banging and hitting someone. It’s always tough. Just trying to keep those guys healthy throughout the year has always been an issue everywhere I’ve been.”
Pugh has missed two games this season, guard Mike Iupati one and tackle Andre Smith three. Center A.Q. Shipley suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and now jack-of-all-trades backup John Wetzel is done for the year with a neck injury.
Key offensive line injuries have affected myriad teams the past few years, and the Cardinals are no exception.
In 2016, Evan Mathis and Jared Veldheer landed on injured reserve, while Iupati and D.J. Humphries missed some action. Last season, Humphries, Iupati and Veldheer went on injured reserve and Alex Boone was sidelined for three contests.
The 2015 season was a banner campaign for offensive line stability, as the Cardinals’ starters only missed four games. That team made the NFC Championship game.
“How many teams make it through a season without an offensive lineman missing a game?” Pugh said. “I would love to know what that stat is. It’s very, very rare that happens. Even the best teams every year, you’re going to have to have players step up. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Center Mason Cole has been remarkably durable dating back to high school, as he has never missed a game. Even so, he’s heeding the advice from the more experienced linemen who have been through the NFL’s 16-game grind.
“They know when something’s not feeling right, and they’re not afraid to say, ‘Hey, hold on, let me get a little breather here,’” Cole said. “It’s huge knowing when you’re hurt (compared to) when you’re injured. You can play through something that hurts, but not trying to make that worse in practice. You’re just trying to do everything you can to be ready on Sunday.”
Once the game begins, an element of luck takes over.
“You just pray every game that you come out healthy,” Smith said.
The loss of Wetzel is big, as the Cardinals will be without their main backup at guard and tackle. The Cardinals filled his roster spot with rookie lineman Zack Golditch as they continue to search for workable options in case a starter goes down again.
There must always be contingency plans on the offensive line, but the Cardinals would love to get Pugh back and find some continuity with the starting five.
“I tried to be the biggest hype man I could be,” Pugh said. “I’d get after it on the sidelines. But I’m sick of doing that. I’m ready to go play a game.”
Images of Cardinals fans during the Week 8 win over San Francisco