Three games may not seem like much. But for the Arizona Cardinals, three games without Tyrann Mathieu, their best defensive playmaker, is the difference between making and missing the postseason.
If someone in the Cardinals secondary doesn’t step up in his place, Arizona won’t be in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
Mathieu, the dynamic second-year defensive back, is projected to be out until October 1, according to head coach Bruce Arians via Darren Urban of the Cardinals’ official website, due to tearing both his ACL and LCL last season.
Assuming that remains the case, Mathieu will be back after Arizona’s Week 4 bye and will make his season debut versus the Denver Broncos.
In the NFL, the limited number of games makes even a small bump in the roller-coaster ride of the regular season seem like a disaster. Take the Cardinals' last season, for example—they had a 1-2 record out of the gate and missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins at 10-6.
A repeat of that 1-2 start seems likely without Mathieu—unless someone in the secondary can do a damned good Honey Badger impression for three consecutive weeks.
As unlikely as that may seem, the Cardinals are one of the few teams in the league that can take a blow to the safety position without crumbling. Mathieu is the team’s most important safety and slot corner, but Arizona has Rashad Johnson, a capable veteran, and two young up-and-comers in Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon.
Those three are Arizona’s best shot at taking on the gigantic task of replacing Mathieu. To figure out how (and if) the team can replicate his production, we first need to dive into Mathieu’s rookie season and see what his role is on the defense.
Tyrann Mathieu’s role
In the Cardinals' base defense, Mathieu is the free safety, but he mainly lines up as the slot cornerback in nickel packages. This means he is tasked with defending both 5’11” jitterbugs and 6’5” basketball-playing tight ends.
Needless to say, Mathieu thrived due to being able to stick to both types of players like glue. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller gave Mathieu one of his top coverage ratings and ranked him as the third-best cornerback in his NFL 1000 series. Pro Football Focus rated Mathieu at plus-9.8 in coverage, just 0.1 below Patrick Peterson’s coverage rating.
With just 13 games under his belt, Mathieu is already really, really good at erasing players in the slot.
He can also hold his own when a receiver takes him deep. Take a look at this interception Mathieu got in the end zone versus the Saints:
Analyzing Mathieu on the field requires noting his excellence in the run game and propensity for creating turnovers. His greatness in the areas that cornerbacks usually don’t get noticed for has Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar comparing him to Antoine Winfield, the former Vikings cornerback who always brought it versus the run.
It’s an accurate comparison—Mathieu’s destruction of DeSean Jackson in the GIF below shows off his closing speed and power with the ball-carrier in front of him.
So Mathieu played a little bit of everything in his first year with the Cardinals. Most of the time he was in the slot, but he also played some deep as a safety and even lined up as a linebacker from time to time.
This versatility allows the Cardinals to change their defense on the fly, confusing offenses without having to substitute new players in. Once Mathieu returns this season, he’ll likely stick as a free safety/slot cornerback hybrid, much like Kenny Vaccaro's role with the Saints. He’s a defensive coordinator’s dream.
Who will be Mathieu’s replacement?
Mathieu has been given tons of praise throughout his NFL career, and for good reason. That makes replacing him a tall task for just one Cardinals player. That’s why the best way for Arizona to replicate Mathieu’s one-of-a-kind versatility is to give a few of its defensive backs specialized roles best suited for each aspect he thrives at.
Replacing Mathieu as the starting free safety in the base defense is Rashad Johnson. Johnson was expected to be the Cardinals’ starter at the position in 2013, but Mathieu exploded onto the scene and never looked back. Now Johnson will get his chance to prove himself at the beginning of the season.
Johnson can certainly hold his own in deep coverage due to his impressive range, and he will fill the center field role in Mathieu’s absence. Darren Urban said Johnson is the natural choice to replace Mathieu, as he is a veteran who doesn’t make mistakes.
That’s just what Arizona needs, considering the next two players in this platoon have a grand total of one year of NFL experience.
Tony Jefferson, an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma last season, is now in line to be a crucial role player for Arizona during its three weeks without Mathieu. He’s running with the first unit during the offseason, per Urban, and showed flashes of being a solid tackler and cover man while working on Arizona’s special teams unit last year.
Jefferson may not be as fluid in his backpedal as Mathieu, but he should be able to anticipate well and tackle in space like the Honey Badger if he keeps improving at his current rate.
While Johnson will be the rangy coverage safety and Jefferson will chip in against the pass and the run, first-round draft selection Deone Bucannon will be there to make ball-carriers hurt. Badly. Jeff Nusser of SB Nation summed up Bucannon as “an in-the-box thumper who is going to destroy anyone who tries to come across his area of the field.”
Throwing Bucannon out in deep coverage early on might be a stretch, but as Arizona’s likely starter at strong safety, he will be counted on to make plays similar to what Mathieu did against poor DeSean Jackson. The GIF below sums up Bucannon at his best.
It won’t be easy replacing Mathieu for three weeks, and asking a decent veteran, a second-year player who wasn’t drafted and a rookie to top his production is a stretch. That’s why Johnson needs to mentor the young Jefferson and Bucannon, so they have a better chance at excelling immediately.
Otherwise, the 2014 Cardinals will be a repeat of the 2013 Cardinals: a 1-2 start, and no playoff berth.
In Week 1, San Diego and a revitalized Philip Rivers can exploit the lack of a true slot corner in Mathieu’s absence, with Antonio Gates and breakout candidate Ladarius Green causing damage over the middle. That doesn’t even include the Chargers’ stable of receiving backs such as Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead.
In Week 3, the 49ers will unleash Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, two big targets who are always a pain to bring down. Also, they have one of the league’s best scrambling quarterbacks in Colin Kaepernick. If Bucannon attempts a big hit and whiffs, that’s a 60-yard touchdown waiting to happen.
With Mathieu, the Cardinals don’t have to worry about all of these possibilities, because he can take care of every type of play. But in the first three weeks of 2014, Arizona will have to lean on three role players to do the unthinkable: be as awesome as the Honey Badger.
Good luck with that.