Getting mental reps has been key for Cards

TEMPE, Ariz. – When Cardinals running back Andre Ellington went down in practice on Nov. 28, quarterback Carson Palmer gave the rookie an important piece of advice.

Don’t go back in, the veteran told the newbie.

“That day, when I went down, he told me, ‘Don’t go back in at all … just kind of get your mental reps. We need you healthy,’” Ellington said. “He was the main guy to tell me not to go back in.”

If there was one person for Ellington to listen to about taking mental reps, it’s Palmer. He spent the week leading up to Sunday’s win over the Rams not throwing any balls in practice while a sore throwing elbow healed. Instead, Palmer took mental reps every day, and it worked. Palmer’s 84.38 completion percentage against St. Louis was the best for an NFC quarterback this season, the best of his career and the second best in Arizona franchise history.

The idea of taking mental reps is to let players -- usually veterans -- walk through each play in practice without adding more wear and tear to their bodies. A novel idea for the 8-5 Cardinals, who need a win on Sunday at Tennessee to stay in the NFC playoff hunt.

“You stand right behind center and you see the field and you see the coverage unfold as you would if you had the ball in your hands and you were delivering it,” Palmer said. “You try to get the mental rep as much as you can and try to match it up with what you see on film after practice when you watch it.”

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said the mental reps are what helped Palmer play so well against St. Louis. But it’s a skill that’s learned with age. Rookies don’t know how to take those mental reps as well as vets.

Call it a trick of the trade.

“I think if you’re a vet and you know what you’re doing, absolutely you put yourself in that situation so when you get in the game and you know what’s going on you can do it,” right tackle Eric Winston said.

While some players use mental reps to just get a day off sometimes, others take advantage of them when they’re hurt.

When wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was out with his hamstring injury, he went through mental reps in practice. They helped him visualize how the defense would play him, which he put to good use in games.

But for as much as they help, mental reps don’t replace the real thing.

“It’s not as good as actually running the rep for me but when you don’t have any other choice, mental reps are very important,” Fitzgerald said. “And as you saw last week, Carson didn’t throw a ball all week. All he did was take mental reps in the passing game and he only posted the second-highest passer rating in history. He shouldn’t take any reps this week.”