When pro players travel with their team to face their hometown franchise for the first time, it sometimes can be too much. From the extra media coverage to stepping onto the field to face the team they grew up following, it can be overwhelming and lead to a poor day on the field.
That does not apply to Arizona Cardinals rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The third-round draft pick has all sorts of skeletons in his closet, all of which stem from his life in New Orleans and then Baton Rouge, where he played for the LSU Tigers.
He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in the months before being kicked off the LSU football team last fall for what amounted to a severely prolonged case of identity crisis. The weed-smoking, beer-drinking lifestyle overtook Mathieu, and it cost him a chance at becoming his college’s third cornerback taken in Round 1 in as many NFL drafts.
That’s not who he wants to be, however, and he worked his tail off to change the course of his life, ridding himself of a drug addict’s lifestyle to get his life back on track to NFL stardom.
The 5’9”, 186-pound defensive back enjoyed a great camp with the Cardinals, making plays nearly every day in practice. He carried that over into the preseason, but he didn’t stop there.
In his two games leading up to Sunday’s matchup against the Saints, Mathieu had 13 total tackles and made the highlight reel by forcing a fumble of St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook. He also made a game-saving tackle on fourth down of Detroit Lions wideout Nate Burleson the next week, which was broken down perfectly by Jim Trotter of TheMMQB.com.
Mathieu had an up-and-down game in coverage against the Saints, often being tasked with covering 6’4”, 225-pound wideout Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham (6’7”, 265). Those two Saints are a mismatch against almost any defensive back.
But the physically undersized Mathieu plays bigger than he is and is as sure a tackler as any defender on the roster. He played a solid free safety in place of Rashad Johnson, who left Sunday's game with a severed finger near the end of the first quarter.
Then came the first drive of the second half.
Quarterback Drew Brees had the Saints on the verge of scoring after going 51 yards in nine plays. Nearing the red zone, Brees lofted a pass intended for wideout Lance Moore, but Mathieu had coverage on Moore, who had run a corner route from the slot.
Instead of Moore leaping for the ball, Mathieu had the better position to make a play. Moore could do nothing to prevent Mathieu from making the interception in the end zone. It was the perfect play—something Mathieu is getting familiar with as his rookie season continues.
He is by no means a perfect football player, but it seems that Mathieu makes one notable play every week—one perfect play that changes the momentum for the Cardinals.
His interception of Brees in his hometown and in front of his family and friends meant nothing in terms of the final score. There will come a day, however, when the Cardinals need Mathieu to make a play and he will do just that because that’s what he does.
The rooster crows at dawn, the sun sets in the west and Mathieu makes game-changing plays. That’s just how it goes.
Brees targeted the rookie five times in coverage—once against Moore and four times against Graham. Mathieu did not fare as well against Graham, as the All-Pro tight end and former college basketball player caught all four of those passes for 74 yards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The silver lining for Mathieu against Graham was that he allowed a total of just 12 yards after the catch. Even the much-larger Graham could not slip a tackle once in the grasp of Mathieu.
If there isn’t an official “Tyrann Mathieu for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year” candidacy underway yet, there ought to be. With his 10 tackles Sunday, he is tied for second among NFL rookies in tackles with 23 on the season.
Mathieu is not buying into the hype, however. Asked by Terrance Harris of NOLA.com if he had any special plans for the ball he picked off, he answered, "It’s just a regular football. We lost. It doesn’t mean anything.”
To a point, Mathieu is right. His interception meant nothing because of the loss. The play would have been more significant had Arizona’s offense put up a fight after the opening drive. Had Carson Palmer taken his offense 80 yards following Mathieu’s pick and tied the game at 14-all, the momentum may have swung in the direction of the visitors' sideline.
Then who knows what would have happened?
The play did mean something, though. It meant Mathieu is continuing to prove general manager Steve Keim was right in taking a chance on him. It also meant one more step in the former LSU standout's journey to becoming an NFL superstar after what could have been a complete waste of God-given talent.
The term "superstar" is used loosely here, as Mathieu is far from being labeled as such. But he's on the right track, and it's only a matter of time before he forces opposing quarterbacks to second-guess throwing at him, and that means more opportunities for potential sacks.
Despite the letdown of being blown out by a Saints' team he grew up watching, Mathieu has plenty to be proud of from Sunday. His performance was gritty, and grit is just what the Cardinals' defense needs.