PHOENIX — It’s instructive to remember that Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is still only 23, even though he’s already in his third NFL season and it feels as if we’ve been watching him fly around a football field forever. But 2015 is turning out to be the best year so far of Mathieu’s pro career. He’s healthy and producing for the 8–2, first-place Cardinals, who hold a commanding three-game lead over Seattle (5–5) in the NFC West.
In 10 games this season, Mathieu has been all over the field as a playmaker, with three interceptions, a touchdown return, a forced fumble, a sack, 12 passes defended and 57 tackles. The 2013 third-round pick has emerged as one of the most trusted and consistent leaders on the Arizona defense, and he still has that ferocious playing style that makes him seem much bigger than his 5'9", 186-pound frame.
Just hours after Arizona knocked off the Bengals 34–31 in that thrilling Sunday night game at University of Phoenix Stadium, I caught up with Mathieu, aka “the Honey Badger,” to talk about everything from Drew Stanton’s dancing to the toughest opponent he’s faced in the NFL.
Don Banks: How much does last year, going from a 9–1 start to one-and-done in the playoffs, drive this season’s Cardinals team?
Tyrann Mathieu: It’s driving us every day. Because we understand what type of talent we had, despite what was going on around us with losing our quarterbacks. We got together in the spring and said, “This is it. This is our moment.” We understand what we did last year and how we kind of screwed up ourselves. We started 9–1, but then we lost five out of our last seven games [including playoffs]. It was a learning experience for us, but we thank God that we kind of kept our same team together. We lost a couple guys, but most of our core stayed together and a lot of guys on our team this year are using last year for motivation. Just to see us closing out these last-minute games, we lost those games last year. Those two or three-point games we lost. So it’s great to see us hang on and close them out this year, especially on primetime TV. That says a lot about our team.
DB: Your coach, Bruce Arians, really knows what he’s doing. What's the most memorable thing he has ever said to you?
TM: Well, he tends to call me the fish of the group, in our secondary, and really what that means is offenses are going to come out and basically pick on me. He’s always challenging us in ways like that, but that’s the thing we like about him the most. Especially with him being an offensive guy, he’s still so into what we do on defense. If we go a whole practice without getting our hands on the ball, that’s something he’s going to address right then and there. He knows what kind of players he has and it’s always pushing for the next level with him. He always wants us to get better and improve the next week.
And even if we have a big victory and we play dominantly, it’s always something he’s going to pick out that we can do better. It’s something we appreciate. He preaches “Next man up” so much that that’s kind of who we are. Everybody has to be ready. He doesn’t believe in starters. He doesn’t believe in backups. He believes in one team and everybody sticking their hand in the pile. So it definitely makes it a team atmosphere.
DB: So when you say he calls you the fish, you’re talking like the sucker in a poker game, the easy mark?
TM: Right. And I’m looking at my season, or the type of games I’m having, and I’m like, “Coach, what’s up man? How can I be the fish?”
DB: I’m one of the voters for the NFL’s annual individual awards. You take my vote for the day. Who gets the nod for Defensive Player of the Year through 11 weeks of the NFL’s 2015 season?
TM: I don’t want to be biased, but I’d probably have to go with Pat [Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson], man. You’re talking about a guy who gave up probably eight touchdowns last year and he wasn’t playing well against all those big-time receivers. Julio [Jones] had 150 [yards] on him like in the first half last year. Just to see him come back this year and take his spot back and be the best cornerback and shut receivers out, it’s impressive.
I know [Bengals receiver] A.J. [Green] caught a couple balls on him [Sunday night], but it wasn’t the balls that A.J. really wanted to catch. So you talk about [Panthers cornerback] Josh Norman, I think those guys are having the same kind of year, shutting guys out. I know Norman has a lower completion percentage against him, but Pat is playing some good ball right now. Even the guy from St. Louis, Aaron Donald, I’ve never seen a guy that dominant on the defensive line. Every time we play them, I’m like, “I hope he doesn’t get to No. 3, because we need Carson.”
DB: Okay, so who’s the toughest current receiver to cover as a defensive back in the league today?
TM: I’d probably have to go with Antonio Brown. I played against him, and just his route running is so tough, and he didn’t have his quarterback [Ben Roethlisberger] that day. And I was thinking, “Man, if he had his quarterback that day, what type of day he would have had.” With him it’s his route running and everything he does, and after the catch. That’s really the headache, because you know he’s going to get his catches. The biggest is trying to get him on the ground, because he’s basically a running back with the ball in his hands.
So I’d probably have go Antonio Brown right now, but Odell [Beckham Jr.] is probably a close second.
DB: Tell me the truth, what did you really think of Drew Stanton’s dancing?
TM: [Laughs.] I thought it was excellent. Any time your backup quarterback is into the game like that, you’ve got a pretty good thing going in your locker room, because he was fired up. I think he did a great job.
DB: But it was so white. Wasn’t it just so white, with no rhythm or set moves to it?
TM: [Laughs harder.] Yeah. It was definitely Drew.
DB: You shot a spot for PETA earlier this year, demonstrating how dogs should not be left in the car in the Arizona heat. You sat in a car with the windows rolled up for about eight minutes in 120-degree heat, until you were a sweaty mess. Why did that issue matter to you and was worth spending your time and energy on it?
TM: For one, I’m a dog owner myself. I have a Yorkie named King. Just the relationship I’ve developed with him is special. He really is somewhat of a best friend. When I come home from a hard day, he’s always happy to see me. Just that relationship I built with my dog, and once PETA reached out to me, it was really a no-brainer for me to do it, especially since out here in the summertime temperatures get up to 120. It was the right thing to do, and for me it was personal because I wouldn’t want to do that to my dog.
And before I did that spot, I didn’t really know that was a law, that you can’t leave your dog in the car. I didn’t know that was a crime. So it if was definitely an eye-opener for me, hopefully it’ll open other people’s eyes as well.
DB: Carson Palmer has this almost other-worldly calm and cool to him at all times. How do you get him mad? Have you ever seen him lose it? Can you even push his buttons?
TM: I have never seen him upset. Even when he threw the two [first-half] interceptions [Sunday night]. He was looking at the defense like, “C’mon, just give me another chance. I’ve got you guys.” Any time you’ve got a quarterback, man, who’s not affected by the things going on around him, it’s so great. He’s a fighter. Like I said [Sunday] night after the victory, this year is personal for him, because he’s been through a lot and obviously he’s getting up there in age and that window is starting to close. It closes for all us. The time to win a championship, we feel, is right now, with the type of team we have and Carson coming off that knee injury. To see him come out and play the way he’s playing, just his leadership in our locker room, has been great. He doesn’t say too much, but when he does speak, it speaks loudly.
DB: Six weeks to go. Which remaining regular-season game are you most looking forward to?
TM: I’d probably be looking forward to the last two games, because we finish out at home against Green Bay and Seattle. Obviously we feel like Green Bay is a pretty good team, a quality team, with a veteran quarterback who knows how to take his team where it wants to go. If we can get to the Green Bay game with great momentum and play those guys at home, hopefully for homefield advantage or whatever it may be, and then finish out with Seattle, and try to wrap up the division. Those last two games would be real big for us, especially if we were going into the playoffs.
DB: I’m guessing that even though you lead Seattle by three games in the division and they’re only 5–5, you still see the Seahawks as dangerous. Is Seattle still in your rearview mirror?
TM: Oh, no way have we lost sight of them. We’ve got so much respect for any team that wins a championship. Any team that’s consistent over time, you have to respect what they have. They started slowly last year and then they finished out and won the division. We understand what type of team they are and that those guys understand where they want to go this year. It’s going to be tough for us to finish out strong, especially with those guys coming into our house at the end of the year. We beat those guys in their house, which doesn’t happen often, so I know those guys are going to be fired up when they come to our house. They want to get that win back.
DB: Just wondering here, but do your two kids get to call you the Honey Badger?
TM: [Laughs.] No way.
DB: Does anyone call you Honey Badger without your permission?
TM: Well, Coach Arians. He calls me Honey. I don’t know if that’s really Honey Badger.
DB: You went on Twitter after the loss in Week 6 to the Steelers and kind of railed on some fans who were critical. Then you deleted those comments. How hard is it to be an NFL player in the age of Twitter and trying to resist the urge to talk back to critical fans or trolls?
TM: It’s so hard, man, because we invest so much of ourselves into this game. So much time. No one feels worse than I felt when I gave up the 88-yard slant [to Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter]. There are so many emotions. I’m passionate, I love this game. I never want people to think I’m not playing my hardest or I’m not giving it my all. Because every play I’m trying to do my very best. At times you get heated. That’s why I deleted it. I realized what I had done and I shouldn’t have done that, but it was a game that was personal to me because of who I’m with, with a coach [Arians] who coached there. And we’ve got Larry Foote, who coaches our linebackers, who played there, too, as did LaMarr Woodley. So I took that game personally because I had guys around me who took it personally. I wanted to win that game so badly for those three guys. Just to lose that game, I felt like I lost that game personally.
DB: From that day in September 2012, when you’re on TV in the stands watching LSU play, after being kicked off the team for your marijuana use, how dramatically different is your life these days in Arizona? Is it worlds apart?
TM: Absolutely, man. That day, I’m sitting in the stands and I’m watching everything that I ever had, because I gave everything to play for LSU. And here I am watching them play without me. It was a gut check, a reality check for me. I never want to experience that again. And thank God I had some people around me who were able to pick me up, because I was sliding down. I was on my face, I didn’t even know how to get up. I had people around me who supported me and encouraged me and helped me, and thanks to them, I got up. And ever since that day, I got up and I never went back down.
DB: Have you ever seen that footage of you in the stands at LSU’s game that day? You looked heartbroken.
TM: Yeah, it was sad. I’m sitting around all these fans, and they used to be my fans. And they’re looking at me like, “C’mon, bro, you’re disappointing.” It was tough. I was disappointing. I had a lot of responsibility and I was the leader of my team and I was a leader of that community. And I should have realized my impact. I should have realized the consequences of me doing what I was doing. It’s not really an excuse for me, being 20 years old. I should have adjusted to it and been able to handle that role.
DB: This season, you have picked off Russell Wilson, and then Colin Kaepernick twice in the same game. In the past you’ve picked off Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Brandon Weeden. Those are all six of your NFL interceptions. Do you only like to pick off top-notch quarterbacks (okay, so there’s Weeden), and do you think you might have inadvertently helped bring upon the end of the Kaepernick era in San Francisco?
TM: Well, I can’t take all the credit for that. That day on defense we were rolling. We were well-prepared and we knew everything that was going to happen to us. For the most part everybody made a play that day. But speaking about the top-notch quarterbacks, I think that is true. Because when I play against guys who aren’t necessarily Drew Brees or Russell Wilson, they really don’t throw the ball my way. It takes facing a quarterback who trusts his receivers or who has the arm to fit throws in small windows. They take more risks, because they believe in themselves.
DB: Where do you believe you rank in terms of the game’s best defensive backs at this point? Is it where you want it to be? Is your strength that you can do a little bit of everything?
TM: I think I do a little bit of everything and do it well. I don’t really play safety that much, even though they list me as a free safety. I think Harrison Smith [of the Vikings], that’s the guy I’m studying these days, I think he’s probably one of the best safeties in the league right now. I think if I had an opportunity to play safety more, I’d definitely be up there with Harrison Smith. But he’s probably the best right now.
But I like how they use me here. I’m always moving around. It’s hard for offenses to get a grip on what I’m doing or where I’m at. I think Cincinnati did a good job [Sunday] night. They ID-ed me a lot and kept a lot of things away from me. Run plays, pass plays. They did a great job. So for me, I’ve got to keep playing and if I’m not making those big plays that I’m accustomed to making, I just have to stay in the game and hopefully get the opportunity to make a play.