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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Cards' injuries at LB impact special teams

By Josh Weinfuss

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Amos Jones has been around for a long time and he's seen his fair share of oddities in football.

And that includes Arizona coach Bruce Arians with hair.

But Jones, the Arizona Cardinals'special teams coordinator, had never seen 11 substitutions on special teams in one game, the number Arizona totaled last weekend against New Orleans because of injuries. Jones' previous high was nine.

Already down one special teams starter, rookie linebacker Kevin Minter (hamstring injury), Jones lost one of his special teams captains, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who ruptured his Lisfranc ligament, and another stalwart, linebacker Sam Acho, who broke his fibula. If that wasn't enough, backup rookie linebacker Alex Okafor tore his left biceps and is out for the season. He played the second-most snaps on special teams against the Saints.

“I compared it to coaching in the Canadian League or coaching in high school ball where somebody gets hurt, you gotta go,” Jones said. “Same thing in the NFL when you only have 53 men. You just got to be prepared for those scenarios. Luckily our guys have accepted that from Day 1.”

It didn't take long for their losses to impact the Cardinals.

Without Alexander and Acho, Arizona's punt-return defense suffered. It came into Sunday's game allowing 0.8 yards, in large part because of second-year gunner Justin Bethel. But without Alexander, who would command a double team, thus opening lanes for his teammates to streak down field, the Saints could focus more on Bethel and slow the downfield stampede. After their 31-7 loss to the Saints, the Cardinals are allowing eight yards per punt return, still impressive, but 10 times what they were previously giving up.

Assuming the roles vacated by Alexander, Acho and Okafor will be the Cardinals' three most recent additions: Dontay Moch, Vic So'oto and Kenny Demens.

Their first challenge will be a top-10 punt return unit and the third-best kickoff return team. Tampa Bay averages 7.8 yards per punt return and 31.3 per kickoff return. The Bucs have had three players return kicks this season and all averaging at least 25 yards per return.

Arizona, meanwhile, has allowed 17.3 per kick return.

“We [are] ready with the backups,” Jones said. “Some of those backups will be starting this week. We went out and acquired three guys that have unique skill sets so we'll utilize them the best we can.

“So, it'll be a bunch of unselfish guys who'll step up and fill in. Some guys will get a little bit more playing time at other positions, and some of these guys we just acquired will come in and put a hand in the pile.”

Alexander was the NFC's Pro Bowl special teams representative last year with the Washington Redskins and Acho was starting to hit a stride on special teams, but it's not their physical skills Amos will miss most.

It was their leadership, their dependability, their experience. Amos could look at Alexander and bounce ideas off him.

“Those guys had great presence in the room,” Jones said. “We have other guys. We're not just about one or two guys, that's not how we're built, but it was always a pleasure.”