Week 2 of Isaiah Simmons Growth Process is Sunday Against Washington

Howard Balzer

As the Cardinals prepare to play Washington Sunday in their home opener, it will be intriguing to see what the role will be for linebacker Isaiah Simmons.

The rookie had some rough moments in pass coverage against San Francisco, but those happened on plays involving running backs rather than 49ers tight end George Kittle. Simmons played 18 of a possible snaps against San Francisco.

Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said what occurred with Simmons was not unexpected.

“I knew it was going to be a learning curve for Isaiah,” Joseph said. “I mean, he missed the entire offseason, he missed the preseason games. It was a COVID training camp, so he probably missed 1200 snaps. I knew it was gonna be tough early, but to watch him compete with Kittle, the best tight end in football in my opinion, to watch him compete and not back down and make three or four nice tackles, it was fun to see. But him competing with Kittle and getting knocked around a little bit; that's what he needed. Now he understands how hard it is to cover these tight ends, how physical this NFL game is because we couldn't simulate it for him.

“The speed, the toughness, the aggressive play of these tight ends, we couldn't simulate that in practice at all. So for him to go out there and play against the best guy in the league and get knocked around some, and also do some good things (was good).”

Joseph noted how evaluation from the outside usually focuses on bad plays, but the good ones often go unseen. And Simmons also had some of those.

Joseph said, “Sometimes with players, when you watch the tape and you watch the good things they do; no one noticed those (good) things. He covered Kittle seven or eight times and Kittle caught one ball, and on the one sack that (Angelo) Blackson got in the second quarter, he (49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo) wanted Kittle and Isaiah had him covered. So those things aren't talked about. So after the game, I called him and I said, I'm proud of you, how you hung in there, because it got physical and got fast on him quickly, and the one in the red zone (a touchdown by running back Jerick McKinnon), he could have played better, but that's part of being a young guy. So, he's going to get better and better. Physically, he's what we want. He just needs more time on the job.”

The touchdown by McKinnon from the 6-yard line came when Simmons went inside to cover tight end Ross Dwelley, but linebacker Jordan Hicks was also there, and McKinnon went unguarded.

Joseph explained that Simmons’ assignments won’t noticeably change going forward.

“He is most comfortable when he's learning multiple spots,” Joseph said. “Right now, he's got a small first-, second-down role, and hopefully moving forward, he can have a third-down role. But we're gonna give it to him in small chunks so he can perfect what he's doing now. And obviously, it's a big-picture push for Isaiah. So hopefully this time next year, he can do a lot more. But we have added some veteran players like (De’Vondre) Campbell and those guys who can take some pressure off Isaiah.

“If Campbell wasn't here, he (Simmons) would be out there every down, but we have Campbell and those guys that have played in games and who are really good starters. So it gives us a chance to bring Isaiah along the right way, so when it's time to take over the role, he's ready to do it. But he is fully engaged. He learns really well. He's very, very smart. He has great football recall. He just needs time on the job.”

Linebacker Chandler Jones said Simmons wasn’t the only player to have some tough moments against the 49ers.

“I've seen spurts of his explosion, his speed, but what I've seen from the game, it's just learning experiences honestly. And even me not having a preseason and going straight out to a regular season game (was an adjustment). These are all learning experiences. The atmosphere with the crowd noise and the no fans and that nature. So each opportunity that we have to go out there is also an opportunity to get better and learn.”

Finally, general manager Steve Keim chimed in during his weekly appearance Friday on the Doug & Wolf Show on ArizonaSports 98.7.

Keim said, “He's a guy that has room for growth, which is exactly what you anticipated for a rookie to play in his first game, and to play against arguably the best tight end in the league. But that being said, this guy has got tremendous skills. He's extremely smart. The only way you're going to grow and get better is to grow from your mistakes. We saw with Kyler Murray last year when he made mistakes, and he showed this past weekend that he's growing. So you can't coach his skill set. But he can improve upon the little things, whether it's his eyes, anticipation, angles, and understanding of the game in general.

“It's a big-boy league. We know that they get paid too and the biggest thing that comes away from it that I think is so good about the experience is he stepped on the field in high school and he was the best player on the field. He went to Clemson and he was the best athlete on the field at Clemson University. Well, now he's not the best. He's one of the best athletes, but he's got to become the best football player. And the only way you can learn is to grow from mistakes.”

Game 2 in that learning process begins at 1:05 p.m. PT Sunday.

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