Much success is contributed to their stubborn defense who was led by rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu, their third round draft pick from LSU. Nicknamed "Honey Badger" in college for his tenacity, Mathieu suffered a horrendous knee injury late in the season last year, ending his rookie campaign. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling reports that Mathieu is 'several weeks' ahead of schedule in his recovery, giving Arizona fans hope he will be healthy for 2014.
Mathieu was a bright star in Arizona, as they quietly and surely began their 2013 season. The rookie safety made an immediate impact last year, recording 68 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one sack. He was a catalyst for their defense, as the Cardinals ended the season ranked first in rushing defense and sixth in total yards allowed out of 32 teams.
Not only was Mathieu a standout defender, he was also a flexible player, and took on the role of returning punts and kickoffs. This proved to be his fateful demise late in the season. Week 14, on December 8th, 2013, in a home game versus the St. Louis Rams, Mathieu fielded a free kick after a Rams safety and suffered a serious knee injury. He was tackled by St. Louis’ Isaiah Pead, and immediately began writhing in pain. Matihieu ended up tearing his ACL and LCL in his left knee, and his rookie season was finished in that one quick moment, during the third quarter of a 30-10 win over the Rams.
Mathieu was October's NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month and had been in the running for the coveted Defensive Rookie of the Year award before he was injured. The MVP of the 2011 SEC Championship at LSU, Hiesman Trophy finalist and winner of the Chuck Bednarik award (given to the year's best college defender) was now on the sidelines and heading to surgery.
|Broderick Delaney via Wikimedia Commons|
His absence left a huge hole in the Cardinals defense, yet they won two out of their last three games, despite their last game of regular season play 23-20 to the San Francisco 49ers. Many say if they had won that extremely close game, Arizona would have made the playoffs.
The knee injury that Mathieu suffered is not an easy recovery by any means. Tearing two major ligaments that required major surgery is perhaps one of the longer rehabilitation periods for that sort of injury. Most experts do not believe he would be ready for the opening of 2014 in September. Yet according to Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, Mathieu is way ahead of schedule.
He works his tail off and he's really ahead of schedule in his rehab. To see the progression over the last couple weeks, it's been amazing. He's making tremendous stridesMost naysayers will say that even if he can play, he will likely have other issues including a groin or hamstring injury, which is completely normal for the leg to do upon return from such devastating trauma. Then, on top of that, he probably won't be as explosive and he will have missed out on off-season work, OTAs and mini-camps.
Yet Keim's strong words make it truly believable that Mathieu is fully ahead of schedule and that his progression is strong. Of course, Mathieu still has a long way to go before he'll be back on the field, and what kind of player he'll be upon his return remains a question. With a nickname like "Honey Badger", coined because of his sheer tenacity, opposing teams should count on Mathieu to wreak havoc in 2014.
Mathieu said last December, "Hopefully, I can come back like A.P." His reference to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who came back after ACL surgery and won the NFL's MVP award in 2012, shows just how much Mathieu is prepared to fight.
"Honey Badger" is determined to come back to the league strong, and is proving himself already. Arizona seems to be completely supporting the 21 year-old safety, and the rest of the league should fully expect Mathieu to pick up right where he left off.
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