GLENDALE, Ariz. - The game had come down to this: fourth-and-4 with 1 minute, 15 seconds to play. The Lions needed a first down from their own 43 yard line to have any shot of overcoming a four-point deficit against the Cardinals, and they made their intentions clear by spreading the formation and sending wideout Nate Burleson to the far right, where they reasonably assumed that rookie free safety Tyrann Mathieu would follow.
That's the way it had been for much of the afternoon in passing situations. Mathieu would shadow Burleson while Pro Bowl teammate Patrick Peterson would align himself opposite All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson. No shock that Detroit would choose to attack a first-year player over the established Peterson, even if Johnson had caught six passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns to that point. All they needed was 4 yards, and Burleson had been effective on quick-hitters throughout the game with seven receptions for 45 yards. So perhaps QB Matthew Stafford reasoned the 11-year veteran would be able to use his advantage in experience, height (6-0 to 5-9) and weight (198 pounds to 186) to pick up at least 6 yards, which was his average per reception on the day.
What they didn't take into account is that Mathieu is no ordinary rookie. Despite sitting out his final season at LSU last year for disciplinary reasons, and despite being matched against an offense that ranked second in passing and third in total yards last season, he did not consider the moment or the game too big. After surrendering the catch to Burleson on an underneath route he coolly tackled him a yard short of the first down to preserve the Cardinals' 25-21 victory.
"What he did is nothing new to us," said linebacker Karlos Dansby. "It's new to everybody else, but not to us. He's been doing it since training camp. The crazy part about it is, he took a year off last year yet he's so consistent on THIS level. I've never seen anything like it - the consistency ... for a rookie ... who didn't play last year. Never."
Mathieu's play highlighted an impressive yet improbable afternoon for the Cardinals, who overcame the late-loss of Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald (hamstring) and some shaky moments by QB Carson Palmer, who had an interception returned for a score to put them down eight midway through the third quarter. Yet Arizona, which desperately needed a win after squandering an 11-point fourth-quarter lead the previous Sunday in a 27-24 loss at St. Louis, found help in places few expected.
Kerry Taylor, a wide receiver who was signed off the practice squad on Saturday after spending time with five teams in three years with no catches, snared three passes for 40 yards in the third quarter. Running back Andre Ellington, a rookie sixth-round pick who caught just one touchdown pass in four seasons at Clemson, converted a short reception into a 36-yard score in the second quarter. Justin Bethel, a sixth-round pick in 2012, blocked a field-attempt early in the third quarter. And Andre Roberts, a quiet yet productive wideout who is becoming a Palmer favorite, drew a pass-interference penalty on cornerback Bill Bentley with just over two minutes to play to set up Rashard Mendenhall's decisive 1-yard touchdown run.
The Cardinals' decisive seven-play, 61-yard game drive was achieved without Fitzgerald, who watched from the sideline with his left hamstring wrapped. Predictably the elation of the score was followed by angst within the crowd, which knew the Lions had the weapons to score - and score quickly - after taking over at their 20-yard line with 1:59 to play. But the defense, which did not allow a second-half score and allowed only one series of more than five plays in the final 30 minutes, would have none of it. Mathieu would have none of it. Pressure? Nerves? He felt neither.
"I'm actually more excited for those guys to throw the ball to me, because then you've got a chance to make a play," he said. "There's no pressure at all."
"That's a play we've been running with great success all game," Stafford said. "The guy made a good play. He tackled him right as he caught it."
Nicknamed the Honey Badger in college, Mathieu finished second on the team with six tackles, including one for loss, and a pass breakup. He fails to fit the NFL prototype because he lacks size and speed, however he consistently shows up when plays need to be made because he has excellent quickness and a high football IQ. He can see things before they happen and he refuses to take off plays, such as last week when he prevented what seemed to be a sure touchdown by chasing down Rams tight end Jared Cook and punching out the ball before Cook could reach the end zone. Against the Lions he was used not only in coverage, but also on the blitz, even batting down one pass.
In all likelihood this is the way the Cardinals (1-1) are going to have to win if they're going to be in the hunt for the NFC West title, something that few give them a chance of doing after three straight non-winning seasons. They have deficiencies across the board - inconsistent play on the offensive line, a spotty running game, the lack of an elite pass rusher, struggles in the red zone, where they were one of four Sunday.
They're going to have to keep games close and try to make a play in the fourth quarter to win, which is why new coach Bruce Arians has spent much of their practice time starting in OTAs working on two-minute drills. He told them that 75 percent of NFL games come down to possessions at the end of both halves, so they would have to be efficient in that area - not just on offense, but also defense.
"It came down to two minutes, and that's something we were so confident in because we work on it every ... single ... day," said defensive end Darnell Dockett. "Even when we were tired, we knew that at some point it was going to help us. I wouldn't be surprised if Wednesday's two-minute drill (in practice) is going to be one of the most intense drills because going to New Orleans it could come down to that."
If it does, Mathieu will look forward to the challenge.