Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu works to ignore hype, continue steady improvement

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the enormity of a season and the attention it brings.

He experienced it in 2011 at LSU, when his Honey Badger-style of play shot him to the top of college football stardom. With that came the awards and accolades, notice and notoriety. With it also came a steep (and expected) downfall from which Mathieu has recovered to become one of the top young defensive players in the NFL.

But Mathieu learned from that season how to not let it happen again.

He sees what’s being said, that in Year 3, he’s playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level, should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year and is having an All-Pro season. Those are goals Mathieu had set for himself. Now, he may being able to make them reality.

Mathieu won’t let himself get wrapped up in all the hype.

“You say it and you just kind of leave it there,” Mathieu said. “I think I’ve said it earlier in the season, the things that I want to accomplish. I just kind of left it there and focused on the season. I don’t try to let it overwhelm me.

“I’ve been there before, you know at LSU, and at times it can get overwhelming. You’re thinking about things in the future when really you should be focusing on the day, so my mindset really is to just handle what’s in front of me and everything in the future. If I do what I have to do today, hopefully it’ll handle itself.”

Mathieu’s career-high 13 tackles Sunday at San Francisco were complimented by an interception where he contorted his body to make a back-shoulder grab.

He’s ranked in the top 10 in solo tackles (seventh with 63), interceptions (sixth with four) and disrupted dropbacks (ninth with 12). He’s also ranked 20th with seven pass breakups and 29th with six passes defended. Pro Football Focus has Mathieu ranked as the top cornerback in the NFL, despite him being a safety.

But he knows he can play even better.

“I’m hearing that I’m playing well and I’m looking at my film and I’m saying I should be leading the league in interceptions and there’s so many tackles I feel like I’ve missed and plays that are still there. So for me, the challenge is to continue to get better every week,” Mathieu said.

Mathieu’s coach, Bruce Arians, has expected a game like Sunday’s from Mathieu. But he didn’t seem overly impressed with the Honey Badger’s outing.

“He could play better, you know?” Arians aid.

How, though?

“Not give up a touchdown,” Arians said. “He statistically had a good game but it still wasn’t one of his best games.”

Mathieu was tested 11 times and the 49ers’ receivers caught eight passes on him for 123 yards -- all season highs. The Honey Badger still is striving to play his best. He’s allowed six touchdowns and receivers have caught 60.3 percent of their targets against him.

His standards are high, maybe abnormally so. He was disappointed the Cardinals’ defense allowed 13 points against the 49ers on Sunday.

“We talk about being stingy and you talk about the players we have on our defense and 13 points is a lot to us,” he said.

Mathieu is aware of where he can improve: interceptions, tackling and leadership. He is cut out to be a leader. Maybe better than anyone on the Cardinals’ secondary, Mathieu knows the importance of stability.

He’s let the attention disproportionately tip the scales, but he won’t let it happen again.

“We’re going to have ups and downs,” Mathieu said. “I think the biggest thing for me is to just step up and keep everybody in balance and keep everybody focused. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs. It’s December football. It’s going to get tough.”