CARSON, Calif. – It was an ugly day for the Cardinals in Sunday's 45-10 loss to the Chargers, but as this season becomes increasingly about the future, a glimmer of hope emerged.
Within the past month, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche was demoted to second-string on the depth chart and hobbled yet again by a calf injury. But just as it seemed time to give up on any chance of Nkemdiche living up to his first-round draft status, he broke out in a big way against Los Angeles.
The third-year player had the most disruptive game of his career, accumulating eight tackles, 2½ sacks and four tackles for loss. Nkemdiche looked like a different guy and felt like one, too.
"I'm a really happy dude – you know, a hippie – but when it comes to this, I was pissed off," Nkemdiche said. "It's just that attitude. Play with as much attitude as you can. People aren't going to respect you unless you go out there and get respect. So I had this really pissed off attitude… and it's always having that angry fury in your journey as a football player. Off the field it's different, but on the field, that's the emotion that drives me. That fire keeps you going, man. It's that constant evolution as a player."
Nkemdiche was active from the start, combining with Chandler Jones on a half-sack to end the Chargers' first possession. He added two more in the first half, finishing the first two quarters with more sacks (2.5) than he had in his first 24 NFL games (2) combined.
"I thought he had his best game all year," Wilks said. "He did some great things. That was great to see on that side of the ball, guys stepping up like that."
A tackle for loss in the third quarter might have been Nkemdiche's most impressive play of the day. He flew into the backfield and took out a pair of Chargers on an attempted reverse, including ballcarrier Melvin Gordon, which resulted in a loss of 10.
Nkemdiche's effort has been questioned in the past but he was one of the defense's most active players on Sunday.
"You go out there and you have to turn the switch on," Nkemdiche said. "Say, 'Hey, (expletive) it, I'm all in.' That's what it is. And now just kind of keep going from there and keep growing."
Nkemdiche showed some promise early in the year but missed assignments and injuries stunted his trajectory. That up-and-down pattern has been a common occurrence the past three years, which is why there cannot be unbridled enthusiasm following this showing.
Even so, it was the latest reminder of the beast that lies within, one which has hibernated too often. After the best game of his career, Nkemdiche is adamant he can be fully engaged the final five games.
"I can, and I will," Nkemdiche said. "It's just finding that comfortability within myself, playing within the defense and just finding ways to evolve as a player. There are always thing to get better at, and you've got to keep going. The best part about being a player is there is never a limit. You can keep going and find things that you're not that good at, pinpoint those and try to make them better. Keep sharpening your skills as a player. You get in that element and you keep working."
Images from the Week 12 matchup at the StubHub Center