TEMPE, Ariz. -- If the Arizona Cardinals have to play John Wetzel at left guard Monday night in place of injured Pro Bowler Mike Iupati, they’ll have a pair of guards with a combined three career starts.
Three. Total. Sometimes youth can reign supreme, right? A little naiveté never hurt anyone.
Except, maybe, in the case of the Cardinals this week.
Arizona’s offensive line will be tasked with slowing one of the best and strongest defensive lines in the NFL, likely with Wetzel at left guard and Earl Watford at right guard, while protecting quarterback Carson Palmer when they face the New York Jets on Monday night. Wetzel and Watford have their work cut out for them. Iupati, who was listed as doubtful, and Evan Mathis who’s on injured reserve, have combined for 187 career starts.
Talk about inexperience.
“The good thing about those two guys? They’re smart,” said offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Harold Goodwin of Wetzel and Watford. “Wetzel, I think he’s had spot duty here and there, giving a guy rest in practice. He hasn’t really played guard since OTAs. Earl is our Swiss Army knife. He should be able to do everything. The thing I keep trying to tell him is ‘relax.’ I think right he’s kind of feeling, ‘I’m the starter now.’ No, just relax, do what you’ve been doing, and you’ll be fine.”
Watford, who owns all three of the duo’s NFL starts, thought about Goodwin’s advice for a moment Saturday, and he realized there was a reason he’s being told to relax.
“I like to see a lot,” Watford said. “It’s not like I’m not focused. I think I’m focused on so much at one time. I guess I do need to calm it down just a bit and focus in on what I’m supposed to do instead of what everyone has to do as a collective [effort].”
Two linemen over from Watford’s left will be Wetzel, a 25-year-old journeyman who, until he filled in for Iupati on Oct. 2 after Iupati left the game with a sprained ankle against the Los Angeles Rams, had just four career regular-season snaps -- all this season with Arizona.
The last week has been an accelerated lesson on playing guard for the lifelong tackle. His position flexibility, which he showed off in offseason practice and training camp, helped Wetzel make the roster. But playing the position on an every-down basis took his education to another level this week.
He relied heavily on the offensive linemen around him (center A.Q. Shipley, Watford and Iupati), both on the field and in the locker room. After Iupati would finish rehabbing his ankle, he’d sit next to Wetzel at their neighboring lockers and go over technique and blocking schemes. He’s also been spending one-on-one time with Goodwin, getting extra reps in.
With two days until his likely first career start, the 6-foot-7, 328-pound Wetzel says he felt “pretty good.”
“If I still need to, I’ll go back and look at film and make some adjustments and rely on the older guys to help me out, too, if I end up playing in the game,” Wetzel said. “I feel the best I could possibly be for the situation.”
Wetzel started taking more practice reps at guard a few weeks ago, he said. The transition wasn’t “as bad” as he initially thought. It was made easier because he took reps at guard while with the Dallas Cowboys from mid-November 2013 through the 2014 season, including a few snaps during preseason games.
Coach Bruce Arians gave Wetzel a little leeway this week to feel out his new position. Technique mistakes were tolerated. Mental errors were not.
“He’s doing as well as he can,” Arians said. “It’s not an easy thing. It’s probably different this week than it was last week, but he’ll be fine.”
All Wetzel has to do is block one of the top defensive line’s in the league.
The Jets are not just ranked second in the league against the run, but they’ve nearly evenly split up their sack distribution, bringing down the quarterback six times from the right and 5.5 from the left.
Palmer, who Wetzel will be charged with protecting, said the Jets have a “great, great front.”
Wetzel was given the nod over rookie Cole Toner because he’s experienced, mature and stronger. But, like Toner, Wetzel was a natural tackle making the transition inside. And Palmer can’t imagine the difficulty of that move.
“I have no idea how hard that is,” Palmer said. “I can only relate it to like asking me to go play tailback, maybe, which would not be pretty. But I can’t imagine. You’re in one stance for so long, then you’re in a different stance and then you’re playing a different position entirely.
“Everybody thinks, ‘We’ll it’s offensive line.’ No, it’s not ‘offensive line.’ There are three very different specific positions along the offensive front. Everybody’s who watched him throughout just this year so far have been like, ‘Man, that guy can probably play,’ but you don’t want to lose Evan and you don’t want to lose Mike. You sure don’t want to lose both of them and, unfortunately, we did. Everybody was kind of like, ‘Oh, Wetz will be fine.’ Everybody’s watching him play in practice and the scout team and just looking at him physically. He’s got size. He’s a great athlete. So, you don’t want to be in a position where he has to play, but it’s very comforting knowing he’s coming in to play.”