Trio of cornerbacks stepped up in a big way for Cardinals
If you thought the Cardinals’ cornerback situation was troubling when Malcolm Butler decided to walk away from the team two weeks before the season opener, imagine what it was like on Sunday at State Farm Stadium.
Top cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. had already been ruled out for the game against the 49ers with a rib injury. But then 90 minutes before kickoff, it was determined that fellow cornerback Marco Wilson, Arizona’s promising young rookie, wouldn’t be able to play either because of a similar injury.
That left the Cardinals with just three corners on the active game-day roster – Robert Alford, who had missed each of the past two seasons because of injuries, and two players others who had been promoted from the practice squad, Antonio Hamilton and Jace Whittaker.
With their unbeaten 4-0 record on the line, it looked like a dicey situation for the Cardinals. They were about to face a division rival that had given them fits each of the past two years. They were also facing an unknown commodity in rookie starting quarterback Trey Lance and a rising star receiver in Deebo Samuel.
It didn’t look promising.
But this year’s Cardinals team keeps finding ways to get it done and they did it once again during a 17-10 victory in which they held Lance to 192 passing yards and no touchdowns while intercepting him once and limited Samuel to just three catches for 58 yards.
Alford and Hamilton participated in 98% and 97% of the team’s defensive snaps and Whittaker saw 46%, which were all season highs. Hamilton tied for the team lead with six tackles and Alford and Whittaker combined for five.
“I was really, really proud of Jace Whittaker, Antonio Hamilton and Rob Alford,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “… Those guys competed their tails off and really helped us win that football game. You can’t say enough good things about them being ready to roll and be prepared when their opportunity arose.”
Kingsbury won’t have a clearer picture on the status of Murphy and Wilson until the team returns for practice on Wednesday, but he’s hopeful they each will be available when the Cardinals (5-0) meet the Browns (3-2) on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium.
“We’re hoping that the weekend off helped those guys, we’ll see,” Kingsbury said. “It will be day to day. Going into this week, seeing how they feel loving around and take it from there. But the Browns are loaded. They’re as talented a roster as you’ll find in the NFL.
“(Browns head coach Kevin) Stefanski is an incredible offensive mind. He’s a guy who, like (the 49ers’ Kyle) Shanahan and (the Rams’ Sean) McVay does a tremendous job with the quarterbacks, building it around him (Baker Mayfield). He has great weapons. Baker is playing at a really high level and it will be a huge challenge for us.”
It will get a little easier if Murphy (three interceptions, six passes defensed) and Wilson (18 tackles, one forced fumble) are able to play. But even if they can’t or aren’t at 100%, the Cardinals at least know they can trust the other three cornerbacks that held the fort down against San Francisco.
“Yeah, they’re pros,” All-Pro safety Budda Baker said. “Jace, since day one, he’s so technical. He’s always asking questions, always doing the right thing. And ‘Ham’ coming in, this is his first year on the team, but the same thing. I love pros, guys who just understand their job and do their job at a high level no matter what.
“If they’re starting, second string, third string, they’re going to do their best and I appreciate those guys so much. I always tell them that because we’re definitely blessed to have guys like that who can come in and the standard never drops. That’s what we talk about and they did a great job.”
Alford said it’s a credit to General Manager Steve Keim and his staff. He said Keim and Co. built a “special” team that continues to evolve and yet strengthen from week to week.
“Marco and Murph was done and Jace and Hamilton stepped up, and of course, myself, stepped up this (past) Sunday in their absence but it just shows that this team is very special,” he said Tuesday. “They built this team in the right way from top to bottom.”
Hamilton, 28, has bounced around the league for the past five years, going from the Raiders to the Giants and from the Chiefs to the Buccaneers before signing with the Cardinals just before the start of the season. He was promoted from the practice squad before their Week 4 victory at the Rams and is expected to be remain on the active roster.
“He’s a pro at the end of the day, man,” Alford said. “I think ‘Ham’ being in the league for like five, six years, he’s been with multiple teams, so it wasn’t really difficult for him to come in and step in and play his type of ball. Everyone seen it on Sunday and will continue to see it during the rest of this season.”
It isn’t just about the players, though, according to Alford. It’s the overall makeup and mental approach throughout the entire organization, he said.
“Everyone here is all in,” he said, adding, “They built this team this year (the right way) from top to bottom. Injuries are going to happen during the season and ever teams wants to minimize those injuries, but as you’ve seen like on Sunday, when people go down it’s the next-player mentality here and there’s no drop off at the end of the day.
“That’s why I’m saying it’s special the way they have the roster from top to bottom because players go down but you have the next player step up and fill their shoes and get the victory on Sunday.”
The Cardinals on Tuesday activated tight end Darrell Daniels from the Reserve/COVID-19 list and have released cornerback Luq Barcoo and wide receiver Josh Doctson from the practice squad. Daniels will get a chance to replace the injured Maxx Williams, who suffered what appeared to be a serious knee injury during Sunday’s win over the 49ers.
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch.
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