The Arizona Cardinals were flying high, leading by 23 points in the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles in Philly. Everything seemed to be going their way, and then one play happened that could possibly change the outcome of their season. Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu picked off a Sam Bradford pass for the Cardinals. He was on his way to return the interception when his right knee gave out on him, sending him crumbling to the ground. The Cardinals were hoping for good news and that it was just a sprain or something or that sort. But the bad news was confirmed this week when it was announced that Mathieu was diagnosed with a torn ACL in his right knee. As a result, Mathieu is out for the rest of the season and will have to work very hard to even have a chance to play to start next season. There were some questions as to why he was even in the game to begin with. The Cardinals had the game in hand and were cruising to a victory. But that is neither here nor there at this point. Mathieu is not coming back this season and there is nothing the Cardinals can do about it.
The Cardinals take a huge hit with the Honey Badger gone. Mathieu was originally drafted as a cornerback. But he was such a playmaker, the Cardinals had to get him into their starting lineup. So instead of starting at cornerback, Mathieu started at safety. And although he is undersized for that position (generously standing at 5’9”), he was everywhere on the field. The thing that made him so excellent for the Cardinals was his versatility. He started off at the safety position in games. And he would patrol the open field along with sneaking down for blitzes and under coverage. But he could also play the slot corner position, a place very few safeties can play. And when he was there, he batted down passes, intercepted passes and was a general disruptor of plays. Many look at Patrick Peterson as the best defensive back on the team. And with his resume, Peterson just might be the best defensive back they have. But in Mathieu, he is definitely their best playmaker out there. He is one of three players currently in the NFL that have 80 tackles and five interceptions. His impact was immeasurable and he will surely be missed.
The loss is something that will hurt the Cardinals, but it is not the end of the world. After all, the Cardinals adjusted on the fly this year and put safety Deone Buchanan at linebacker to start the year. And that adjustment has been very successful for them. So moving forward, the Cardinals will have to hope veteran Rashad Johnson is able to get healthy and play. He currently is suffering from an ankle injury and that has him questionable for this week. Another guy that has to step up at the safety position is Tony Jefferson. The third-year safety from Oklahoma is going to get his chances to make some plays happen. Not saying he is the Honey Badger, but he just needs to be solid and make some things happen. If he makes the plays when they are available and is sure in his techniques, the Cardinals should be fine at the safety spot. But as far as the slot corner, that one will be something the Cardinals will have to tinker with. They have Patrick Peterson, but he usually sticks with the top wide receiver threat from each team. So that leaves cornerback Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel. Powers has been targeted a bunch by opposing teams and that has been an issue for the Cardinals during points of the season. With Mathieu gone, the Cardinals may just take him inside to play situationally. The only other option is taking cornerback Justin Bethel and putting him in the slot. The Cardinals seemingly don’t feel comfortable with him there, so it will more than likely be Cromartie and Powers manning the slot. Either way, they have to make a decision on how they want to approach that spot.
The playoffs are approaching and there will be some times where defensive back play will be crucial. With Mathieu gone, the Cardinals now have two weeks to devise a plan to replace him. It may take some ingenuity, but the Cardinals are surely capable. But it will take all of their defensive backs to make this happen. And for their sake, they better hope one of them can make some plays. The things Mathieu does cannot be duplicated by anyone the Cardinals have. And he definitely was the guy that was responsible for a lot of big plays.