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The Cardinals continue to suffer hits to their cornerback group, which led to head coach Kliff Kingsbury having some fun with the media Friday while discussing the roller-coaster summer experienced by Marco Wilson.
And that was before we knew Byron Murphy Jr. had been added to the injury report with an illness and listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Wilson was a revelation as a fourth-round pick in 2021, and the expectation was that he would continue to advance his game this year. However, he struggled and at one point a few weeks ago, Kingsbury said Antonio Hamilton had earned a starting spot opposite Murphy.
That was until Hamilton suffered second-degree burns on his feet and legs on Aug. 22, which led to him landing on reserve/non-football injury the next week for at least the first four games of the season.
The Cardinals then acquired Trayvon Mullen Jr. and claimed Javelin Guidry on waivers in the week the roster was reduced to 53. Although Mullen told reporters earlier this week he expected to play against the Chiefs, he never practiced and was declared out Friday because he’s still recovering from surgery in May for a toe and foot issue that cost him 12 regular-season games last year.
So, it was that Kingsbury was asked how Wilson responded to temporarily, at least losing his starting job.
“He really dialed back in,” Kingsbury said. “Our defensive coaches were up front with him about things he needed to do to take that next step and get back to where he was last year. And I think he listened and his attention to detail has improved dramatically. I can’t wait to watch him play Sunday.
“It’s just my expectations for him are very high. And so I wanted him to understand what we expect from him and Ham was playing great all camp, there’s no doubt. But we think Marco has an elite skill set. And it’s just time to put it all together.”
At one point, however, well before it was said Hamilton would be a starter, Kingsbury said the “jury’s still out” for what Wilson’s role would be.
Still, the head coach gave his version when pressed about calling out Wilson publicly.
He said, laughing at one point, “Yeah, but it wasn’t like I trashed the dude. I said the other guy’s starting. Like I didn’t even use his name. Y’all used his name. I just said the other guy’s starting at this point. So that’s like context clues. Y’all are trying to get clickbait. Headline: ‘Kingsbury bashes on Marco Wilson said Ham is starting at this point.’
“But no, we’re excited to have three guys that are all starting caliber. That’s the truth. And Marco, now that Ham’s been out, has really stepped his game up.”
Of course, it’s a stretch to claim any headline claimed Wilson had been trashed or bashed, but Kingsbury got the point across that he supports Wilson.
It was up to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to devise a plan and for the players to execute against quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a talented group of pass-catchers even without the departed Tyreek Hill.
As Joseph said of Mahomes, “Obviously, watching him on tape, it’s scary. No one really stops him. Obviously, if he gives you the ball, you got to catch it, you’ve got to be great in the red zone. He’s going to move the ball, he’s gonna buy time, he’s going to scramble and make big plays. So being great in the red zone, being great on third downs, winning your share of those things. If he makes a mistake, take advantage of it. That’s huge. But no one stops those guys. Nothing’s changed. They’ve lost Hill, but they’ve added two veteran receivers (Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster), big targets, guys with experience and that always works well for a veteran quarterback to have smart players with him.
“The tight end (Travis Kelce), still a special player, uncoverable one-on-one and all three backs (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ronald Jones and Jerick McKinnon) can catch the football. They’ve drafted a rookie Skyy Moore, so they’ve got a lot of talent around Patrick. The O-line is very solid. So it’s gonna be a tall task. But having a great plan, it’s going to be key. And not being afraid to play on our terms is going to be key also because they’re gonna move the ball anyway, so why sit back and be scared? That won’t work all day. So we’ll see how it works out. We have a good plan and I believe in our plan, and we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
The corner with a target on his back could be rookie Christian Matthew, who was waived the day the Cardinals claimed Guidry and then was re-signed after clearing waivers when Hamilton was placed on reserve.
Kingsbury revealed Friday Matthew would be the “next guy in” (the third corner), a role that’s become like a starter in the NFL especially when playing passing offenses like Kansas City. However, Joseph will likely use a variety of packages.
As Kingsbury noted, “There’s some flexibility there with JT (safety Jalen Thompson) being able to play nickel, (safety) Budda (Baker) in an emergency, cutting down and do that. So there’s some flexibility. It’s just not a lot of depth at that corner position.”
As for Matthew making strides, Kingsbury said, “He has for a young guy. And he’s 25, 26 I think (26 on Oct. 26), an older rookie and he approaches it that way. Very mature in his approach, the way he studies and he just got better and better.”
Matthew, who wears the No. 35 of Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, a jersey that has been rarely worn since Williams left for St. Louis in 2001, is grateful for what he has gleaned from the presence of Baker and Thompson.
“Those guys are incredible,” Matthew told gophnx.com. “The best safety tandem in the league, but a lot of people don’t know they’re just the smartest players in the league as well. So having those two guys there helps out a lot.”
For a guy that played at three different colleges (Georgia Southern, Samford and Valdosta State), Matthew learned quickly the importance of the mental game at the pro level.
He said, “That’s a huge part of the NFL. Everybody has talent, but you have to learn. You have to execute the system to the exact detail. The coaches expect you to be detailed, learn the playbook and doing it exactly how they tell you to do it.”
Faced with this unexpected opportunity, much less on opening day, Matthew said his goal is to “play confident, do my job, so the coaches and players trust me. I’m excited, just to prove myself to be somebody that my team could rely on, somebody my coaches can rely on.”
Noting the challenge that comes with playing against Mahomes and the Chiefs, while keeping his emotions in check, Matthew said, “It’s a blessing No. 1, and then I just try to focus on my job; just block out the noise. If I can just focus on my job, everything else will take care of itself.”
Finally, he was asked when the last couple seconds tick off the clock, what are you hoping you prove to everybody?
Matthew said simply, “Prove that I was a trustworthy, very reliable guy, who did his job and played his butt off.”
We’ll know at about 4:30 Sunday afternoon if that will be the case and whether he will make No. 35 proud.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: email@example.com