Talk about progress.
And, to what did he attribute this to? Pizza. Pepperoni, to be exact.
“Pepperonis give me more fuel,” Nkemdiche said. “It’s all in the pepperoni.”
On top of the sack explosion, the Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle had a career-high eight tackles and a disrupted drop-back percentage of 6.6, the eighth-highest mark in Week 12.
Six of his eight tackles were solo and four were for a loss. He also hit quarterback Philip Rivers three times.
“I thought he was physical. I thought he penetrated well,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said. “He did a good job of using his hands. He really tried to dominate the line of scrimmage, as we talk about all the time, and had his best game.”
Nkemdiche was active and dominant from the onset. He shared a sack with Chandler Jones on the Chargers’ third offensive play of the game. He had 1.5 sacks by the end of the first quarter and added another sack in the second. But Nkemdiche had no idea that this type of game would come to him, especially that early.
“It was just kind of just go out there and try to wreak as much havoc as we can,” Nkemdiche said. “There was so much more that we could have done.”
Rivers was getting the ball out quickly en route to 25 straight completions, making it hard for Nkemdiche or anyone else to converge on him. But Nkemdiche found other ways to influence the game.
He was about 9 yards deep in the Chargers backfield on the reverse that injured Melvin Gordon in the third quarter. Nkemdiche had started to wrap up running back Austin Ekeler when Ekeler pitched to a streaking Gordon. Nkemdiche appeared to roll while trying to tackle Ekeler and leg-whipped Gordon, who injured an MCL on the play.
Nonetheless, Nkemdiche managed to bust the play and drop Gordon for a 10-yard loss.
Nkemdiche said his performance was the result of putting his coaching to use.
“Just taking coaching and using that and getting off the ball, and using the things we’ve been taught to penetrate and be as disruptive of a front as we can,” he said.
Sunday was a long time coming for Nkemdiche, the one-time top-five prospect out of Ole Miss.
A long time.
Nkemdiche’s career in Arizona has been marred by injuries, ineffectiveness and immaturity.
He’s played in just 25 of 43 career games and has been hampered by lower-body injuries throughout his career. His first career sack came in Week 1 this season -- more than 320 snaps into his career. In his rookie season (2016), Nkemdiche was called out by former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians for being immature. Nkemdiche was looking forward to a clean slate under new coach Steve Wilks, and it’s paid off.
“When you go back, the inconsistency, the injuries, not being on the field, getting back on the field and trying to get back in a routine of things, so, a number of things can go into that,” Wilks said.
Nkemdiche’s fellow defensive tackle, Rodney Gunter, has seen Nkemdiche’s evolution from this rookie season to now. The area of most growth, Gunter said, has been Nkemdiche’s maturity.
If Nkemdiche can continue to stack games like Sunday’s on top of this past week’s showing, he could be setting himself up for another year in Arizona. The 24-year-old is in his third season of a four-year rookie deal, and since he’s a first-round pick, he’s eligible for a fifth-year option that the Cardinals usually pick up after a player’s third season.
Whether Sunday was a one-off or the next step in Nkemdiche’s progress is yet to be seen. Either way, Gunter liked what he saw in Los Angeles.
“For me, personally, it’s exciting to watch,” Gunter said. “I’m rooting for him. I believe that me and him are the future of the Cardinals, so I’m rooting for him and he’s rooting for me.”