When A.J. Green played with the Bengals, it was rare once the regular season started for the offensive starters and defensive starters to go up against each other in practice. There were scout team defensive plays to work against, just like the starting defense needed to see the offensive plays for that week's opponent.
That changed when Green got to the Cardinals. Starters versus starters, and "I think it really helps us out," Green said.
It's not all the plays, of course. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said it's about 10 percent of the plays for the week, about 20 all told. "When you are seeing the first-string offense, it's a different style of play versus when you are seeing (scout team) cards," Joseph said. "It helps us keep our edge."
Joseph, in all his years in the NFL, hadn't come across such a concept. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury started it when he was at Texas Tech, having studied what Pete Carroll had done at USC and with the Seahawks.
"Just to get the game speed, particularly for the quarterbacks to feel that speed and compete day in a day out against each other," Kingsbury said. "I think it's good for the culture."
Joseph insisted that's a reason his young defensive backs have made so much progress in a short time, going up against Green and DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk all the time. The football cliché is "iron sharpens iron," and you can't get a more tangible example of first-string versus first-string in practice.
-- The Cardinals are going to see rookie QB Trey Lance Sunday, and normally that should be an advantage. But the Cards won't have starting cornerback Byron Murphy and they might not have the other starting cornerback, Marco Wilson. Robert Alford will get a start, but then what? Antonio Hamilton likely is the other starter if Wilson is down, but it will be interesting to see how Joseph plays it otherwise. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons can and has been used in coverage. Both safeties, Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson, have shown they can be used as the nickel.
-- If Simmons is used more in coverage, that may mean Zaven Collins gets back a bunch of the snaps he lost last week. The fact stud tight end George Kittle is doubtful means Simmons might not be needed as much in covering the tight end. (And with both their best offensive weapon and their starting QB, the 49ers could not care less that the Cards won't have Murphy.)
-- Speaking of Collins, J.J. Watt went to lunch with him a week ago, driving to a place called Hillstone.
"He followed me to the restaurant the other day and I asked him if I drove fast enough for him," Watt said with a grin, taking another poke at the rookie, who had been arrested for speeding in the offseason.
"It'll never die," Watt said of the good-natured grief. "It'll follow us forever."
-- That said, Watt couldn't give enough praise for Collins as he learns the game. "He's a good kid." He said Collins has the right mentality to get better, and he even surprised Watt by picking up the tab at lunch.
"I didn't know he was paying, so I ran the bill up because I thought I was paying, ordered whatever I wanted," Watt said. "Then he put his credit card out and I was like, 'Nice move.'"
-- OK, I know it seems to come up every week. But with Trey Lance playing QB, and with probably no Kittle, I really truly think Chandler Jones finally gets the sack to set the franchise record for a career.
-- Chase Edmonds did practice some Friday, but his status will be fascinating to watch – and even if he tries to play, do the Cardinals have someone else besides James Conner help in the running game? Or might Rondale Moore have a bigger role with the ball in space?
-- Joseph was blunt when – after he was asked about it – how the Cardinals teach their pass rushers to "break the elbow" and try and knock the ball loose from a QB rather than hit him. Such is the world these days when every single touch of the quarterback has a chance to draw a penalty.
"We want the ball anyway," Joseph said. "If our rushers win, we're not tackling the quarterback. We are attacking the elbow, causing a fumble, getting the ball, and they'll give you the sack. Hitting the quarterback is old-school, punishing the quarterback, can't do that anymore."
Joseph said the same if a quarterback runs, as Lance likely will do some Sunday. Go for the ball, because a hit whether the QB slides or not often gets a flag.
"Our guys are taught to CPR – club, punch, rip the ball," Joseph said. "He'll obviously go down if you punch the ball. We want the ball. Outside of that, it's going to be a penalty so we don't even teach it anymore."
-- The final word comes from Kyler Murray, who was asked this week how it feels to be on a winning team, after he did nothing but in high school and college before the first couple of bumpy NFL seasons.
"I'm used to winning, that's what it is," Murray said. "This is not a new feeling for me. It feels right, it feels normal. To be back in a position where we go into each and every game confident that we will come out victorious is a great feeling, for sure."
See you Sunday.