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Zach Ertz limited in return to practice; Clayton Tune act two Saturday

Howard Balzer Avatar
August 17, 2023

Two down, two to go.

The Cardinals opened training camp with four players unable to pass physicals: quarterback Kyler Murray, tight end Zach Ertz, rookie linebacker BJ Ojulari and rookie cornerback Garrett Williams.

Ojulari was removed from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list Aug. 7 while Ertz exited that same status Tuesday, leaving Murray (PUP) and Williams (non-football injury) still unable to practice. The more accurate term for Williams would be non-NFL injury, but the league uses the non-football designation because his knee injury occurred while in college with Syracuse last season.

The question is when they all will be ready to play. Complicating the issue is there simply aren’t many practices remaining until game prep for the season opener begins the week of Sept. 4.

Next week, there will be no more than three practices with two occurring against the Vikings in Minnesota. After the roster reduction to 53 on Aug. 29, there might be one or two practices before Labor Day weekend.

Aug. 29 is also when a decision has to be made on both Murray and Williams. If they switch from active status to reserve that day, they can’t begin practicing until after the fourth week of the season. If they are not on reserve, they would occupy two spots on the roster.

It’s also instructive to note that Ertz was activated almost exactly nine months after he underwent surgery for a torn ACL and MCL suffered on Nov. 13 against the Rams. For Murray, nine months from his January surgery for his ACL and meniscus, would be Oct. 3. Williams’ torn ACL occurred two weeks before Ertz in an Oct. 29 game against Notre Dame.

Ertz had limited work in individual drills Tuesday, but did not practice Wednesday because of a cold he apparently caught from his wife and son. He returned to the field Thursday, but did very limited work.

Coach Jonathan Gannon said Ertz texted him last week on the way to the airport to return to Arizona after he left town to meet with his surgeon for testing and was then cleared for football activities.

“He’s fired up and he wants to play football,” Gannon said, while adding, “Anytime when you’re coming off of an injury, the reps are gold. He’s played a lot of football, so he’s seen a lot of things. But like I said way back when, he knows what he needs to get himself ready to play. He needs time to do that to feel mentally and physically ready to play. We have a long way to go with him. We’ll do what’s best for our team first and then Zach second, and he’s on board with that.”

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said, “He’s played this game at a high level for a long time, so it brings a level of experience to the position and into the offense. I think we have to be smart and we’re going to rely heavily on the training staff and his ability to tell us where he’s at and how he feels and take it slowly and make sure he’s ready to go by the time he hits game day.

“I’m just excited to see him out there. He’s a great teammate and just the leadership aspect of it as well.”

For Ertz too, there is the matter of limited practice time prior to the Sept. 10 season opener against Washington. If he is available to play, he will likely be on a somewhat pre-determined snap count.

That could affect the roster makeup at cutdown time. Trey McBride and Geoff Swaim appear assured to be on the roster, but Ertz’s status might result in an extra tight end (Noah Togiai or Blake Whiteheart) being kept. They will also be candidates for the practice squad from which two players can be activated for games.

Quarterback Colt McCoy, the expected opening-day starter, said of Ertz Tuesday, “It was great just to see him out at practice today. He got a little bit of routes on air and looks fantastic, so I think just slowly building him up and getting him back going a little bit is going to be a big boost for all of us.”

Gannon had a similar sentiment about Ojulari, who was also unable to practice during OTA and minicamp.

“We’re gonna be smart with him,” Gannon said. “I need to see some things from him in practice before I feel comfortable with putting him in a game.

Tune, act two

Rookie quarterback Clayton Tune is expected to play significant snaps Saturday against the Chiefs as he works to be the backup to Colt McCoy at the beginning of the season. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, if the more experienced David Blough is the backup in Week 1.

Gannon said Tune is still learning “the details, that you’ve gotta be right all the time to give yourself a successful chance to have a good play. Just the improvement of all the different things with playing quarterback. He knows he has to improve on them to have the offense operate in a good way, so I’m excited to see him go. He had a good day yesterday (Tuesday). Today, we’ve got some stuff in that we’re going to try to confuse him a little bit on defense, but he’s doing a good job.”

The supportive McCoy said of Tune’s play against Denver, “I thought he did great. I mean, it’s his first time in the NFL. Him and David both; they played great. They had control of the huddle. All of those are unscouted looks. You know what we’re trying to do on offense, but you don’t really know what they’re doing. I thought they did a nice job.

“Sure, there’s plays they want back, but it was fun to watch them. We spend; I mean I spend more hours with these guys than I do with my family. You want them to be successful. You want them to do well. Everybody has each other’s back. That’s not just for the quarterback room; it’s kinda for everybody.

Upstairs, downstairs

Petzing and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis were both on the field for the game against the Broncos. While Petzing said he will be in the booth for Saturday;s game, Rallis will remain on the field.

“Obviously, the operation was clean,’ Petzing said about last week’s game, “but I’m going to try going up this week. I think it’s important to try both and make sure that I’m making an educated decision on what’s best for the team and what’s best for our offense.”

As for Rallis, he’s done a 180 from his 2021 season on the field as the linebackers coach during his first season with the Eagles.

He said, “To be honest, I didn’t like it. When you’re coaching a position, you’re responsible to sub your guys in and out and when you’re subbing guys in and out, you have to stand somewhere usually in the sticks. When you’re on that angle, very close to the line of scrimmage, it’s hard to see run game, it’s not easy to see protections, not as easy to see routes. So my plan (this summer) was to give going on the field another try because I had gone back up in the booth in ’22. It was a better complement for Jonathan and my plan was to do a game on the sidelines, stand a little bit further back, see if I could see what I needed to see and then if that didn’t work out, I was going to try going up in the booth.”

It turned out he liked the way things went against the Broncos.

“I actually really liked this,” he said. “I think there’s value to being on the sideline where I can communicate with the players face to face, with Jonathan face to face because the head coach is difficult to get a hold of that guy sometimes. He’s hopping between the offensive line and the defensive line. So I enjoy being on the field and I think I’m going to go again in preseason (game) two on the field.”

Collier’s renaissance

Defensive end L.J. Collier was the 29th overall choice in the 2019 draft by the Seahawks, but he rarely played like a first-rounder. After becoming an unrestricted free agent in March, Collier signed a 1-year contract with the Cardinals for the veteran minimum base salary that also included a $76,250 signing bonus.

For now, he has earned a starting job in the defensive line rotation.

Of his time in Seattle, Collier said, “It just didn’t fit for me. It wasn’t my type of system, my type of place. I tried my best to make it work. Sometimes places don’t work out. On to the next one, and I feel I have made a home here, and I feel like I will prove over the next couple of weeks I am worthy of the first-round pick I was a few years ago.”

Gannon said this week, “Knowing how they used him in Seattle for what they thought was best for their team, we’re using him a little bit differently for what we think is best for our team and then for him. He’s done a really good job of taking on that responsibility and playing with some different techniques that he hasn’t played with since he’s been in the NFL. I like where his game is at. He’s a mean guy with a high motor. I like that.”

When asked whether Collier is “a sack guy,” Gannon said, “I think all of it.”

As for what the rotation will look like, Gannon said, “You obviously want guys to emerge and be your premier players, but even when you have premier players those big guys up front, you don’t want to wear those guys down, so if they’re up on game day they’ll play.”

The process

Earlier in camp, Gannon revealed his plan to do installs like a game-week.

That approach extended to the schedule and mindset for this week leading up to Saturday’s game against Kansas City so it resembled what game week will be like in the regular season.

Gannon said Wednesday, “The day was set up this whole week with Week 1 moving forward in mind. We wanted to get them in that cadence, in that routine knowing that when we go to Minnesota (for two practices next week), it’ll be completely different. The week after will be completely different. Truthfully, wanted a dry run for the players a little bit to get in their routines they need to do to get ready to play from Monday morning until Sunday kickoff and for the coaches, too.

“Because we already changed and tweaked a few things. I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, why did I make that decision in June? That was wrong. It’s going to be similar today to yesterday and then tomorrow will be a little bit shorter day (like two days before games in the regular season). Get them out of here with meetings and a walk-through Friday.”

McCoy is on board with the plan, despite it being a new approach for him.

He said, “What Coach Gannon has done this week with us is really treat this like a game week. Not necessarily from a scouting the Chiefs or putting a game plan together for them, but more importantly; what’s your process? What days are you watching what tapes? Third downs, red zone. Like get into your routine and what’s it going to be like. Get with your coaches to understand, ‘Hey I wanna have these looks by this time of day or on Wednesday or whatever’ and I think that is what this week should be for.

“Some of the young guys can get with the older guys (and) say, ‘What’s your process?’ and they can learn a little bit. Everybody kind of develops their own routine. Yeah, we wanna go play well, right? We’re playing the Super Bowl champs at home. But it’s really about us going out and executing the things that we’re working on at this point in camp and seeing where we are.”

When it was noted that there’s only three weeks until that first game-week prep, McCoy said it’s still about every day “nailing down your process. We’re not really thinking ahead right now. We play the Chiefs here on Saturday and we want to go out there and play well, but really putting together your routine and Coach Gannon’s really given us the freedom to say this is what the week’s gonna be structured like. Like, let’s make sure you build your routine off of this. And I’ve never really done that in training camp before, but as an older player that’s really nice. It’s getting everybody on the same page and the communication’s been awesome.”

McCoy also said he focuses on each day and doesn’t think about whenever the day is that Murray is back.

“For me, my focus is just operating day to day and not really getting too far outside of that. Focusing on my job in this offense, what I can do today to help us be the best we can be when we step on the field. I just can’t operate if I start thinking about, ‘When is he going to come back or what’s going to happen?’ Coach Gannon preaches, it’s kinda a cliche, but it’s team over you and that’s really my mindset.

“I know my teammates are counting on me and I know they believe in me so when I step in there, I’m gonna run this as best as I can. And then when Kyler’s back, he’s gonna be back and he’s gonna play great too. So that’s what I’m really focusing on.”

Odd addition

The Cardinals signed safety Sean Chandler this week and placed cornerback Rashad Fenton on reserve/injured with an undisclosed injury.

The oddity is that Chandler will begin a two-game suspension Aug. 29 for a violation of the league’s PED policy. He played 17 games for the Panthers last season, mostly on special teams, but the impending suspension was announced March 6. Nine days later, he became an unrestricted free agent and had limited interested throughout the offseason.

Payton defends strategy

Broncos coach Sean Payton said he knew the Cardinals might let his team score a touchdown late in last Friday’s game, but insisted his decision was the correct one.

He said, “I thought we handled that right. It’s interesting. We had the ball on the three- [yard line]. (Actually it was the 4-yard line.) I think it was a minute and a half, minute 35 [remaining in the game]. If they have one timeout, we’re going to take a knee. [With] no timeouts, we’re going to take a knee, then kick the field goal. When you have two timeouts, the number that you get is 48 seconds, give or take, and I’d rather they have to score a touchdown with one minute and 20-something (to play) than a field goal with 48 seconds.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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