Before practice Monday, Kliff Kingsbury acknowledged that with J.J. Watt taking part in his first work of training camp, the coaches would likely have to pull the veteran defensive lineman off the field at some point.
The head coach was right, because as Watt said with a smile afterward, "Things happen. Juices get flowing and you just start to play football."
Individual drills weren't enough for Watt, because it had been a long and very cautious road to get back in the first place. The team removed Watt from the Physically Unable To Perform list after he had tweaked a hamstring in the team's conditioning test July 27, and even Watt admitted had it been in the regular season, he could've returned sooner.
The wait just made it a little easier – and safer – to come to practice just a little harder on Monday.
"Someone (in the locker room) asked me how it felt," Watt said. "You're like a dog chasing a tennis ball. Wherever it bounces, you want to get it, you are excited to be out there, and it doesn't matter if you are supposed to be where it bounces, and that's what it felt like."
The Cardinals are slowly getting back their defensive linemen. Watt, Corey Peters and Zach Allen have returned to work. Jordan Phillips (injury and the Covid list) and Rashard Lawrence (injury) remain sidelined.
Watt's lengthy absence was all but predicted once the PUP list was used, and he has been active in other areas. His experience with Vance Joseph in Houston under Wade Phillips' similar defense makes that part of the learning curve flat, and he has been participating in meetings as well as talking through scenarios and questions with teammates.
"He's played in this system before so we know he knows it," Kingsbury said. "Just his intensity, his focus, his attention to detail will be great, for our defense and our entire team."
It is unlikely he plays against the Saints Saturday – "I know what my body needs to be ready for Game One, and I don't think preseason games are one of those things," he said – but there is still plenty of practice time left before the road trip to Tennessee in Week 1.
During the game, he instead will continue adding his experience to the in-game discussion, and more importantly, lend support and encouragement to the players fighting for a spot on the roster, to "make sure it feels like a real game, make sure it feels the intensity that is necessary."
The game play will come soon enough. Besides, the 32-year-old Watt and Joseph want to be smart with his play anyway. Watt has been over 90 percent of his team's defensive snaps in every year he has been healthy, including over 91 percent last year.
The Cardinals don't want Watt to go dog-chasing-tennis-ball when the regular season arrives. That's why they were so cautious with bringing Watt back in camp in the first place.
"I think it would be beneficial to be able to cut some of those back a little bit," Watt said. "Part of it is the game gets rolling and personal pride kicks in, I want to be out there. But there is also that part of understanding it's a long season, it's a long game, and you need to be in there in the right situation."
Images from Monday's practice at Cardinals Training Camp Powered By Cox.