Cardinals linebacker Markus Golden sacks Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and forces a fumble Sunday night during Arizona's 34-31 win.
Bruce Arians didn't need a fiery speech to get the attention of his rookies two weeks ago. All he needed was a magic marker.
One day at the Cardinals' training facility in Tempe, the Cardinals' coach listed all the jersey numbers of his first-year players on a white board. To second-round pick Markus Golden and the rest of the group, the message was clear.
"He called us out," Golden said. "He said it was time for the rookies to step up. The type of guy I am, I take that personally."
After Sunday's night's 34-31 win over the Bengals, the group was looking less like novices and more like
major pieces of the puzzle. It was a rookie coming out party on national television, as four of the team's draft picks played a significant role in the victory.
Wide receiver J.J. Nelson was the star, catching four passes for 142 yards and a touchdown in place of the injured Michael Floyd. Golden finished with three tackles, including a strip-sack which safety Deone Bucannon recovered deep in Cincinnati territory.
Defensive tackle Rodney Gunter had his first career sack, while David Johnson had a 16-yard touchdown reception to tie Larry Fitzgerald for the team lead with seven scores. Additionally, undrafted nose tackle Xavier Williams made his season debut in the defensive line rotation.
Arians said this is about the time of year when it's realistic for rookies to get an expanded role.
"They should be ready to roll by Thanksgiving and count on them by Thanksgiving," Arians said. "I like where all of our young guys are. Our young guys have to step in now and give you depth."
Nelson had one of the biggest plays of the game, catching a 64-yard bomb from quarterback Carson Palmer to tie the game at 14 early in the third quarter. He's been either inactive or used sparingly this season because the trio of Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown has been so good, but took advantage of his opportunity against the Bengals after learning he'd have a significant role from wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
"Coach Drake came up to me and said we have one man down – Mike—so we need you to step up," Nelson said. "I knew then and there I had some big shoes to fill."
Nelson did it impressively, although he couldn't escape some good-natured jabs afterward. On one of his long catches Nelson was tracked down by Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson.
"You run a 4.2 at the Combine and you get run down by a 6-8, 290-pound defensive end?" veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "It was disheartening. We told him on the field as soon as we were coming over there. I was like, 'Man, you got caught. That was bad.' But he made some plays though."
Nelson was also called out for muted pizazz following his long score.
"They've been talking about my celebration," Nelson said. "I told them that I was tired."
Nelson, Gunter, Johnson and Williams all came to the Cardinals from small schools. It was an adjustment at first, but from offseason workouts to preseason games and now into the regular season, they've been around long enough to learn the ins and outs of professional football.
"Calais (Campbell) and Frostee (Rucker) challenge me to step up, that I have to grow up and mature," Gunter said. "I'm not a rookie any more. Being in what, our tenth game? I'm a veteran."
Golden has been lauded for his ability to get pressures and hits on opposing quarterbacks throughout the first part of the season, but that had resulted in only one sack. As he battles veterans Alex Okafor, Dwight Freeney and LaMarr Woodley for playing time, a play like the one he made Sunday will make the coaches think twice about taking him off the field.
Golden blew past the right side of the Bengals offensive line and hit Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton before he released the ball, changing the complexion of the game in the fourth quarter with the forced fumble.
"I'm getting right," Golden said. "It's that time for me. I can feel it."
While all of the rookies are part of a rotation in their position groups, they are all trying to make an impact while watching the others do the same. The quicker they can get their jersey numbers off the white board, the better.
"When you get drafted I feel like the expectations are set high," Nelson said. "I feel like the season hasn't been going pretty good for me this year, in my opinion. So I just try to come out and produce the best way possible. I know David, Rodney, all the other guys have been doing pretty well. So I just tried to come out and make a name for myself."