Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu returns an interception against the Bears on Saturday night.
Tyrann Mathieu locked quickly onto Bears receiver Kendall Wright, sneaked a glance into the backfield and saw the football coming his way.
The Cardinals’ star safety jumped the out route on Saturday night, nabbed an easy interception and returned it 52 yards. For fans that have only tuned into game action, it was their first time seeing Mathieu pick off a pass in 10 months. But for those watching at training camp, it’s nearly a daily routine.
Mathieu is completely healthy again and resembling the All-Pro who terrorized offenses in 2015. The encore was delayed a year as he recovered from a torn ACL, but the consistent dominance in practice justifies the return of gaudy expectations.
So here’s one that was posited to him on Tuesday: Is it realistic to think he can lead the NFL in interceptions in 2017?
“A lot of times I look back to the 2015 year, which was one of my best years ever playing football,” Mathieu said. “I caught five, and I was tied for the team lead, but I dropped five. So that would’ve put me at 10, and I would have led the league that year. I’ve just got to catch the balls that come to me. If I catch 90 percent of the balls that come to me, I’ll lead the league in picks, I believe.”
He has believers throughout the locker room. While coach Bruce Arians said Mathieu’s propensity to blitz makes it tougher, he “should have a chance” at the interception crown.
“He’s got great hands,” Arians said. “He was a great little running back when he was young. He’s just got ball skills. A lot of guys are DBs because they couldn’t play wide receiver, because they can’t catch. He’s not one of those guys. He’s always had really good instincts with the ball.”
Mathieu’s odds are helped by the presence of fellow All-Pro talent Patrick Peterson in the secondary. Quarterbacks avoided Peterson more regularly than any other cornerback in the NFL last season, and if they continue to do so, that means more chances for Mathieu.
“You have to pick your poison,” Peterson said. “When he’s not out there teams pretty much know where they’re going to go, or try to go, with the football. They’ll try to avoid me as much as possible. It’s going to be tough to keep the ball away from two guys.”
While those are the reasons to believe, the discussion goes nowhere without health. Mathieu has missed an average of 3.5 games per season during his four-year career, and he has never played a full regular season. If injuries take away a chunk of playing time, an already-tough task becomes nearly impossible.
Mathieu’s ability to lead the league will also be contingent on turning nearly every potential interception into one.
As natural as Mathieu makes it look plucking footballs out of the air, it’s not a given. He said there are some instances when he hasn’t focused completely enough on the catch, and it cost him. There have been other times when he was too intent on making the pick and got in his own head.
“I remember a Pittsburgh play, where Michael Vick was on the opposite hash,” Mathieu said. “Antonio Brown ran an out route and I got a good break. It just seemed like the ball took three days to get there. So I’m just looking at the ball and then it hit me in the face. I was like, ‘Damn, that was a pick-six.’”
Interceptions can be finicky. Mathieu could play great this year and still only nab a couple, or he could threaten double digits if teams stay away from Peterson and challenge him.
Mathieu has watched former greats consistently finish at or near the top of the interception leaderboard, and wants to join their company. He mentioned players like Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu and Deion Sanders.
Reed led the NFL in interceptions three times and had five picks or more seven times in his career. Polamalu had five interceptions or more in three separate seasons, while Sanders hit the mark five times and added all of his dazzling returns.
The last Cardinals player to lead the league in interceptions was Aeneas Williams, who grabbed nine in 1994. Mathieu would love to be next.
“I think it’s something every defensive back strives for,” Mathieu said.
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders at the second preseason home game of the 2017 season