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INGLEWOOD, Calif. — There was so much talk last week about Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt returning from injury to play against the Rams in the playoffs that it was anti-climatic Monday afternoon when the team officially activated Watt from injured reserve.
While there was little question Watt would play for the first time after suffering a shoulder injury on Oct. 24, the big unknown was how would he play after being out for nearly three months.
Just average as it turned out. Watt played eight plays in the first quarter, which is probably more than the Cardinals wanted. But, then, the Rams had the ball more than the Cardinals wanted.
The Rams led, 21-0, by early in the second quarter and had gained 163 yards. The Cardinals had minus 4 yards on their first four possessions.
But the offense wasn't all to blame. The defense left open gaping holes, which the Rams were more than happy to run through. And quarterback Matthew Stafford had no problem finding open receivers.
All that rendered Watt a very minor sidebar in his return.
Watt didn't start but he was in by the Rams' third play. The Rams were called for a false start on that play. The next, Watt helped stuff a run. On the third, he was stymied on the pass rush, but the guy next to him, Markus Golden, sacked Stafford.
Those were the total of Watt's "highlights" when this story went to press.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury likes to play a little gamesmanship with injuries, revealing little or no detail about the health of his team, or the timetable for a player's return.
All last week, he said a decision on Watt would be made at close to the last minute.
Watt, however, left no intrigue about his intentions. He and his social media team were active all weekend, and topped it all off Monday morning by tweeting a one-minute inspiring video with Sia"s cover of "California Dreamin.'"
It wasn't perfect because it included shots of Patrick Peterson, who departed after last season, and "University of Phoenix Stadium," a title sponsor that departed in 2018.
Watt wasn't the only Cardinals on last week's injury report who played Monday night. The Cardinals entered the game healthier than they have been in weeks.
On offense, running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner were active. So was receiver Rondale Moore and guard Justin Pugh. All we listed as questionable before the game.
Defensively, cornerback Marco Wilson, who was questionable with a shoulder injury, was active.
Defensive lineman Jordan Phillips was the only player listed as questionable who was inactive for the game.
Ertz not looking ahead
Zach Ertz only played in 11 regular-season games for the Cardinals this season following his trade from the Eagles, but he finished with 56 receptions to tie the franchise single-season record for most catches by a tight end, equaling the mark set by Hall of Famer Jackie Smith in 1967.
Ertz, however, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022 and although he’s constantly said he loved his time in Arizona and has developed a strong bond with many of his teammates, especially quarterback Kyler Murray, re-signing with the Cardinals hasn’t been on his mind.
“I’ve not thought about that,” he said before Monday night’s playoff game. “Just focused on this week and finding a way to get open on third down in the red zone, block to the best of my abilities and find a way to win a football game. You start thinking about other things, you’re going to be not prepared and I don’t want to let anyone down on this team, so my focus is solely on this game.”
Murray has relied heavily on Ertz in recent weeks and judging from his comments about the veteran it certainly sounds like he desperately wants to see him back.
“He’s just a comfort level. It’s crazy,” Murray said. “You go back and watch it, he’s always open. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. If I go back and watch Zach, nine times out of 10 he’s won his route. He’s a savvy guy who knows how to get open. He knows every defensive coverage known to man and he’s a great teammate.”
Ertz called Murray “the most talented player I’ve ever been around” and said he’s proud of the chemistry and trust he’s built with the third-yar quarterback.
“Kyler is a phenomenal quarterback. He makes my job extremely easy,” Ertz said. “I know when I get open the ball is going to be exactly where it needs to be. … We talk football a lot. We talk running routes. We talk how he wants me to do certain things against certain coverages. I think just the communication we have off the field really sets us up for success on the field.”
Respect for Joseph
Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will interview with the Dolphins for their vacant head coach position, but whether he leaves Arizona or not, star safety Budda Baker said it’s been an honor to play for him the past three seasons.
“It’s been awesome working with him,” Baker said. “VJ is one of my favorite coaches that I’ve been coached by. He’s a guy who is for the players, a guy who will give us the installs and ask questions to the players like, ‘Hey, do you like this? Do you like that?’ He will always preach that if you feel like you’re in a bad predicament on some type of play, he’ll take it out.
“That’s one of the best things to know as a player. A lot of coaches, it’s their way or the highway. But with this guy, he really wants to understand and learn. He knows his personnel and he wants each and every person on that defense to play their greatest. We knew that (a job interview) was going to happen. He’s a great coach and he’ll be a head coach somewhere someday, but I’m just glad he’s our defensive coordinator right now.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: No surprise, Cardinals J.J. Watt played Monday night. But how well?