Linebacker Alex Okafor takes down Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins for a sack last weekend.
Heading into Sunday's game against the Redskins, Alex Okafor was a little-known former fourth-round pick with more injuries on his résumé than tackles.
By the time it ended, the second-year outside linebacker showed he just might be the answer to the Cardinals' most glaring weakness.
The defense has played well this year, but the main concern has been its irregularity in pressuring the quarterback. With sack-master John Abraham and disruptive defensive tackle Darnell Dockett both out for the season with injuries, the Cardinals have been searching for a consistent pass-rushing presence to team with star defensive end Calais Campbell.
Okafor was the last of the cavalry, as others had gotten their chances through the first four games while he worked his way back from
a quadriceps injury. Okafor eased back in with 10 snaps against the Broncos, but knew he'd have a significant role against Washington starting in place of the injured Matt Shaughnessy.
He responded, finishing with four tackles and two sacks while playing 90 percent of the defensive snaps. He now has 33 percent of the Cardinals' sacks on the season. Okafor had one career tackle in four games previously.
"The team was depending on me and I needed to step up," Okafor said. "I had some big shoes to fill with Matt being out. More than anything it was just opportunity. I didn't need to be nervous or anything. It was opportunity to show what I could do."
It was Okafor's first career start, not because the coaching staff didn't believe in him, but because he couldn't stay healthy. He missed the final 13 games of his rookie year with a torn biceps before suffering the quadriceps injury in the preseason finale against the Chargers. Even on that play, he gave a glimpse of potential, getting injured because an offensive lineman held him to prevent a sack.
"The ref threw the flag and everything," Okafor said. "I was turning the corner and my leg got stuck in the ground when he kind of horse-collared me."
Up until that point, Okafor was a common choice as a potential breakout player for the Cardinals after excelling in the offseason and during training camp. Outside linebackers coach James Bettcher had a feeling it would come together if he could just get on the field.
"I don't think we expected anything less of him than what his production was in the game," Bettcher said. "I don't think we have any
less expectation for him, and I don't think he has any less expectation for himself. And he shouldn't."
It wasn't just the two sacks which excited the coaches. Bettcher said Okafor was solid in the running game and kept up a high motor throughout.
Even though DeSean Jackson burned the defense for a 42-yard gain in the second quarter, he ran into his own player and fell at the Arizona 10, where a chasing Okafor touched him down. The Redskins were held to a field goal on the possession.
"I was really pleased with his effort," coach Bruce Arians said. "He was very relentless, and that's what he needs to be."
Okafor did not throw himself a party for the breakout performance. He's interested in making this a weekly occurrence, which doesn't allow much time to revel in the success.
"When you see guys week in and week out perform well, it's not a big deal when you have one good game," Okafor said. "It's about stringing them all together."
That's what Arians needs to see next. Okafor has impressed before, but injuries quickly derailed him. With opportunity in hand, he must run with it.
"It gave me hope," Arians said. "A lot of hope. But it's a consistency thing – staying healthy. Every time he's had an opportunity to play, he's played pretty solid. It's just a matter of stringing some games together and staying out on the field for about eight weeks in a row."
Okafor admits this week has felt a little different for him. He excelled in college, registering 12½ sacks as a senior at Texas, but had never done it on an NFL stage. Now he feels like he can't let up.
"It's just consistency," Okafor said. "Now that I have set the bar for myself, I can't fall under it. I've got to continue to produce like that and look for my role on this team to grow. That's what I expect."
The Cardinals' defense was rated as one of the best in the NFL without much semblance of a pass rush. That's playing with fire, though, as even the best secondaries can't hold up forever.
There had been internal buzz about Okafor throughout the offseason, and it finally came to fruition. If he can continue to translate it to the field, it makes a good defense that much better.
"That's just football, man," Okafor said. "All these great quarterbacks in the league, the one common factor with them all is if you hit them, that's how you slow them down. You don't slow them down by dropping eight guys. You slow them down by hitting them and making them uncomfortable in the pocket. So that's the goal week in and week out. We've got to find a way to get there."