Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu halfway through 'Savage Season'

Bob McManaman
azcentral sports
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Arizona Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu celebrates a sack against the Baltimore Ravens in the first half on Oct. 26, 2015 in Glendale, AZ.

Tyrann Mathieu’s self-described “Savage Season” is half complete, which means the Honey Badger is halfway to heaven or halfway to hell.

There’s no in-between for the Cardinals’ electrifying safety, nickel cornerback and do-everything defensive back.

If he doesn’t fully meet the lofty list of goals he laid out for himself before this season started, the ones he still has written in black marker on the white grease board in the top left corner of his locker, he will have failed.

But halfway through the season, Mathieu is right on course. Not only is he on pace to hit most, if not all, of the personal stats goals he set, he also has restored the Honey Badger lore and seen his popularity soar again.

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“I think I’m earning it. I think a lot of guys respect me and I think it’s continuing to grow,” Mathieu told azcentral sports earlier this week. “As much as I stay out of trouble, as much as I do the right things off the field and obviously, keep performing well on the field, a lot of guys respect that throughout the league.”

You know he’s the talk of the NFL when Deion Sanders invokes the Badger legend while interviewing Seahawks defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas after a recent Seattle victory over San Francisco. Although they both playfully complained to Sanders about bringing up Mathieu on a night that was supposed to be theirs, they each said they “love” the Honey Badger.

“Yeah, I heard that. A lot of people texted me and told me about it, too,” Mathieu said, smiling. “I’m cool with those guys, Richard and Earl. We’re cool. We all know it’s a competition. We’re all trying to be the best in the business. I wish them the best, too.”

The national love figures to keep coming for Mathieu the more he and the Cardinals remain in the spotlight. And that’s where they’ll be coming out of their off week when they play the Seahawks and the Bengals in back-to-back prime-time games on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” They also have another prime-time game looming on a Thursday night against the Vikings.

“If the team has the overall success and he continues to make the plays he’s been making, I can see him being the new superstar in this league, yes,” said former Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry, who is now the host of his own radio show, on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. “The turnovers, interceptions and touchdowns, those are the things that really get the public’s attention. I think he has a definite shot to be that guy.”

Mathieu is calling 2015 his “Savage Season” because he’s out to make a statement. Now fully healthy after suffering a severe knee injury his rookie season and also dealing with a fractured thumb a year ago, he wants to not only win Comeback Player of the Year, but Defensive Player of the Year and be named a First-Team All-Pro.

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“It’s a mindset,” he explained. “It’s a mindset to prove people wrong. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t think I’d probably come back and be this good or be this effective for my team. For me, it’s just about proving people wrong, being accountable to my teammates and giving them my best every play, every down. And in the end, winning football games and stacking up some awards.”

Statistically, he’s stacking up the numbers he sought.

He wants to finish the season with at least 95 tackles. He has 46. He targeted three forced fumbles. He has one. He said he would have between 10-20 pass breakups. He has nine. He’s lagging in sacks, registering only one when he predicted he’d finish with six.

“I should be leading the league right now in interceptions, though,” he said. “I wrote down eight and I should have five, which would put me right where I need to be. I’ve only got two, but I dropped about three. Every other goal, though, I feel like I’m on track.”

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What about the completion percentage against pass catchers he’s covered? Mathieu wanted to keep it to 20-30 percent.

“I don’t know the exact number,” he said, “but every time I look at the stat sheet, it’s usually two catches for 19 yards or three catches for 30 yards, something like that. Those type of days from a wide receiver, that won’t beat me.”

His defensive coordinator certainly does.

“He’s been outstanding,” James Bettcher said. “Playing hard. Playing fast. Plays with so much passion and energy. He’s emerging as one of the leaders on this defense and maybe even potentially in the locker room. I can see guys gravitate toward him. The energy he brings is contagious with other guys he’s playing with. He’s playing at an extremely high level right now.”

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Maybe the best is yet to come. The second half of the season comes with a much tougher schedule for Mathieu and the Cardinals. But the bigger the stage, the better the Badger likes it.

“I feel like I got off to a pretty good start, individually,” he said. “Team-wise, I feel like it’s a pretty good start. I mean, 6-2 isn’t bad. I wanted to win those two games we lost. But individually, I feel great. I feel healthy. My confidence is back so naturally, the play-making effect is back.

“I’m feeling it. I’m playing with that intensity. I’m bringing the energy. It’s just passion, man. I don’t want people to mistake it for rage or anger. I just love what I’m doing.”

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