Cardinals' Dennis Gardeck succeeding with 'mental warfare' and patience

TEMPE, Ariz. -- As Dennis Gardeck waited for the first defensive snap of his career, the Arizona Cardinals' linebacker channeled his nervous energy into Midwestern graciousness.

It was Week 5, and though Gardeck is in his third year with the Cardinals -- having earned a Pro Bowl alternate nod as a special-teams player in 2019 -- he had yet to play on defense. When he entered the game at the two-minute warning, the Illinois native looked across the line of scrimmage and introduced himself to the New York Jets' offensive players as they all waited for play to start.

"I would just say, 'Hey,' because they obviously didn't know who I was," Gardeck said. "So I just had to be like, 'Yo, I'm a special-teamer,' just to let them know. That way, when I did beat them, it's like, 'Dang, we just got beat by a special-teamer.'

"Mental warfare."

By then, Gardeck, who went undrafted in 2018, was used to no one knowing who he was. In his first game as a grad transfer at the University of Sioux Falls in 2017, an unknown Gardeck recorded five sacks against the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In Week 5, Gardeck used that same anonymity to his advantage, recording two sacks.

Since then, he has found a role -- albeit a small one -- in the Cardinals' defense in the wake of Chandler Jones' season-ending biceps injury. Gardeck has played in every game since Week 5 for a total of 58 defensive snaps, 46 of which have come in the pass rush and 79% of which have come on third down. He has been efficient. His two sacks against the Jets came in 10 snaps, and his sack in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Rams came in three snaps. Gardeck is averaging one sack per 19.3 defensive snaps.

"Just kind of starting to find my way onto the field on defense is definitely exciting, and being put in position to go out there and showcase my skills has been fun, so I'm having fun with it," Gardeck said.

Patience has been a virtue for the third-year pro. He waited 36 games into his NFL career to get his first defensive snap, but he was ready when his name was called.

"You just prepare like you're the starter all the time," Gardeck said. "That's what my linebacker coach my rookie year said is just always prepare like you're gonna be playing the first snap because you never know when it's gonna come."

For the first two seasons and five games of his career, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays were Gardeck's game days. On the scout team, he typically went up against Cardinals starting left tackle D.J. Humphries on the field and picked his brain after practice about what he did that worked and what didn't.

"He was always the guy that was kind of like, he'll do something. He wants to know if that was gonna work in a real-life situation, or did that threaten you here or here?" Humphries said.

When Gardeck wasn't talking to Humphries, he was studying and picking the brain of one of the NFL's best pass-rushers, who also happened to be his teammate: Chandler Jones. Gardeck banked all of it.

Gardeck, who was named the Cardinals' special-teams captain this season, was an inside linebacker in 2019. This offseason, after the Cardinals drafted Isaiah Simmons, Gardeck moved back to outside linebacker, his natural position. But he looks like anything but a natural NFL outside linebacker.

"You look at him -- 6 feet tall and short, thick arms shouldn't translate to being a good pass-rusher," said Gardeck's college coach, Jon Anderson.

Gardeck -- whose flowing blond hair and passion for the weight room earned him the nickname "The Barbarian" -- makes up for his lack of size with explosiveness off the ball and stealthy speed.

Gardeck met Derek Kennard Jr., the older brother of Cardinals outside linebacker Devon Kennard, while training and rehabbing at Fischer Institute in Phoenix, a gym owned by Cardinals physical therapist Brett Fischer. Derek Kennard owns Pro Edge Performance Training in Arizona, where he works with pass-rushers and defensive linemen, and his initial assessment was that Gardeck was a "natural."

"He had phenomenal get-off. His get-off was crazy," Kennard said. "He was very fast-twitch. He was quick as all get out, and he had great natural body lean. With that, you got the makings of a really solid pass-rusher."

Kennard tinkered with Gardeck's footwork, technique, hand placement and hand combat. They also worked on the mental side of pass rushing: how to compartmentalize the plan of attack for different types of sets. Kennard didn't want to change much. His goal was to "enhance." Together, they sharpened Gardeck's stab and his speed-to-power moves.

Gardeck's quickness off the edge has been his secret weapon. He has already caught some tackles off-guard with how fast he is, and he has been able to combine that with his power to collapse the pocket and be a presence around the quarterback. Gardeck's height also has been an advantage because he figured out that tackles don't like to bend as much as they need to defend a guy his size.

As his first season at outside linebacker winds down, Gardeck has a clearer understanding of who he is as a pass-rusher.

"I'm starting to develop a feel for the way people are going to play against me," he said. "But it's still early in the process of being a pass-rusher."