Safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) blitzes Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins during Sunday's game.
As if the brace he must wear on his left knee isn't enough of a reminder, Tyrann Mathieu had a flashback to his punt-return-gone-bad of last December as he ran around the field Sunday after picking up a Washington fumble.
Mathieu briefly bounced around, the ball precariously cupped in one hand away from his body, before the bodies started closing in. No reason to risk another potential knee injury, not after everything he had been through, the safety thought.
"I just got my ass down," Mathieu said with a chuckle.
The process is ongoing for Mathieu. In many ways, his return to the field has been painfully slow and frustrating, even if he only technically
missed one game. There is a difference between playing again and playing like yourself, as any player coming off surgery to repair an ACL (and in Mathieu's case, an LCL as well) can tell you.
After sitting out the regular-season opener, Mathieu played five defensive snaps in New York, 15 defensive snaps against San Francisco, and 15 defensive snaps in Denver before getting 49 plays against the Redskins as the strong safety in the Cardinals' nickel package.
"I knew they were going to come out in a lot of kings (four wides), and it would definitely give me the opportunity to see the field more," Mathieu said. "I think I ran around and changed directions pretty good."
Coach Bruce Arians has consistently talked about working Mathieu back in the lineup as his ability has dictated. Mathieu has been healthy for weeks. But wearing the knee brace, which is incredibly light but still naturally hampers some movement, has made it difficult to be the "Honey Badger" quite yet.
Arians said Mathieu's inexperience playing with the brace is noticeable. Mathieu admitted, even after the Washington game, he's not comfortable with it.
"But I have to be comfortable with it, so I play these mind games with myself and tell myself I'm comfortable with it," Mathieu said with a smile.
Arians said both Jefferson and Mathieu will continue to "both be starters" – "We don't sit and talk about starters because we do play some different packages a lot" – but the time was always coming that Mathieu would be back in the lineup. He never was moved from the top of the depth chart, even when training camp opened and Mathieu was weeks away from playing.
How Mathieu's role evolves will be an interesting process. Arians has consistently praised the play of Jefferson, Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers all season. Johnson and Powers are both coming off good games.
But all three could be impacted by Mathieu's return to health. It was Mathieu who often played the slot receiver in the nickel packages last year, the role Powers has taken with Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie on the outside. It was Mathieu who, in base defense, played free safety last season, taking Johnson's starting spot. And if the coaches prefer to have Johnson on the field, Mathieu could end up staying at strong safety for now, cutting into more of Jefferson's time.
All along, Mathieu has been quick to say how well all three are playing. He means it. But he also is desperate to get back on the field for good, playing all the time and making all the Honey Badger-type plays that won him so much attention as a rookie.
That time, it seems, is edging closer. For now, it's a step at a time – or even, not taking a step and falling to the turf, discretion being the better part of valor after a fumble recovery.
"It just felt good to be out there and contribute," Mathieu said.
PRACTICE SQUAD MOVES
The Cardinals made a couple of moves on their practice squad Tuesday, releasing linebacker Jonathan Brown and signing linebacker Kaelin Burnett and cornerback Ross Weaver.
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders during the game against Washington