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Next Man Up

Sanders' showing highlights depth Cards have built to withstand injuries


Safety James Sanders (39) gets behind linebacker Daryl Washington (58) during his fumble return for a touchdown Sunday in place of Adrian Wilson.

Minutes before a Monday afternoon meeting, James Sanders was standing at his locker with his back to the closest TV.

Around him, his teammates were watching the replay of Sanders' 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown that sealed the Cardinals' 27-6 win over the Eagles on Sunday. While their eyes were glued to the TV, the eight-year pro, in his first season with the Cardinals, didn't pay the screen an ounce of attention.

Most players would've taken at least a moment to savor the bedlam that ensued inside University of Phoenix Stadium when Sanders was escorted by five teammates down the Cardinals' sideline to his third-career touchdown.

But not Sanders, who along with Rashad Johnson teamed to replace safety Adrian Wilson, who was inactive Sunday with a groin injury. He acted like it was old hat. He treated it like his job.

"You just got to be professional," Sanders said. "Whether you're a starter or backup, you got to go into each and every game ready to play. In this league, you don't know what's going to happen. Injuries happen all the time. You got to know the scheme and know you're responsibilities, and when your number's called, you got to step up and perform."

Injuries throughout the week and during Sunday's game forced players who were second or even third on the depth chart into significant minutes.

Sanders and Johnson replaced Wilson. Tight end Rob Housler filled in for Todd Heap. During the game, Ryan Williams assumed the full running back duties when Beanie Wells went down with a toe injury early in the third quarter. Vonnie Holliday replaced Darnell Dockett after he left the game in the fourth with an injured hamstring.

They were all ready for it.

Housler spent all week unsure if Heap's sprained knee was going to be healthy enough for him to play against the Eagles. But Housler, listed third on the depth chart behind Jeff King and Heap, prepared like usual. He studied the Eagles' defense. He readied his body. And he focused his mind.

The non-starters understand they're one play, one injury, one coaches' decision away from being thrown in the mix.

"I've got to get myself ready," said Housler, who replays reps in his head when he's not on the practice field. "I'm not worried about something that I don't control. If you sit there and worry about stuff that's out of your control, you're just going to stress and you're going to take away from the rest of your preparations. I worry about stuff I can control and that's my preparation."

Johnson, who treats every week like he's going to start, replaced Kerry Rhodes last season for nine games when Rhodes was out with ankle and foot injuries. It prepared him to have a "next-man-up" mentality.

Johnson said this year's roster might not have the "names" on the second team, but their games are just as big as the starters.

"They can go out and perform just as well to keep the team where it needs to be until his return," he said.

The Cardinals' second unit wasn't mobilized just last week. It has been on high alert since the season began. Quarterback Kevin Kolb came off the bench in Week 1 to replace the injured John Skelton and D'Anthony Batiste filled in for Levi Brown at left tackle.

"It's good to see these young guys develop," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It's good to see D'Anthony, who worked as hard as anybody in the offseason, get an opportunity and take advantage of that opportunity. That's what this is all about. You love to see that as a coach."

With the new faces in the lineup Sunday, the Cardinals didn't miss a beat. They had their best offensive performance of the season behind 222 yards passing from Kolb and 83 yards rushing from Williams. But the defense was even better, holding the league's then-top-ranked offense without a touchdown.

The transition to a strong-safety-by-committee was seamless.

"We don't assume that you're going to go in and be any kind of letdown," linebacker and defensive captain Paris Lenon said. "But that's what you need to have on a good football team. I don't want to call us good just yet. I don't want to jump the gun just yet. We have the components and the character to be a really, really good football team but we got to continue to work on it."

That's regardless of who's on the field. As Lenon noted, "it takes everybody."

The trust in players like Housler, Johnson and Sanders didn't just develop during the last week or two. It started during OTAs, was strengthened through the offseason and training camp and is being put on display in the regular season.

"It's a job and we've got to get it done," Housler said. "I think everyone in here has trust in the next man regardless of who's in there."

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