TEMPE, Ariz. – Every week it’s somebody different.
It started with Carolina’s Greg Hardy and since it’s been San Francisco’s Justin Smith, Seattle’s Chris Clemons, Houston’s J.J. Watt, Atlanta’s Osi Umenyiora, Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis and Philadelphia’s Trent Cole.
This week the barrage doesn’t stop. Up next: St. Louis’ Robert Quinn.
Another week, another fast, strong, fierce defensive end for Arizona left tackle Bradley Sowell to block. Sure, it’s hard work, but it also gets exhausting thinking about who’s next.
“You look at the schedule and you kinda see who you have and you just watch them the best you can and see how it goes,” Sowell said.
“It’s a gauntlet. Like every week, you get really high and ready to go against Mathis. And then the next week it’s Trent Cole and then it’s Robert Quinn. So, you got to be consistent without getting over-hyped.”
Nine games into his stint as the Cardinals’ starter, Sowell has learned to control his emotions. The biggest difference, he said, between now and Week 5 against Carolina, when he was promoted to the first team following Levi Brown’s trade, is his ability to calm himself.
He’s more “chill” than he’s ever been.
“When I get beat, sometimes I used to freak out earlier,” Sowell said. “Now, when I get beat, (I think), ‘Hey, they’re paid to win, too.’ Got to let it go and keep playing.”
Sowell doesn’t get beat nearly as much as he keeps defenders at bay. Last Sunday against Cole, Sowell stopped him 69 times out of 71 plays -- that’s a rate of 97 percent. Not bad. But it was Cole’s two sacks that everyone remembers. One of the most important lessons Sowell has learned this season, besides how to punch and move his feet, is to have a short memory. He can’t weigh himself down with what happened a few plays ago because a guy like Mathis keeps his motor running every snap.
Sowell’s played some of the meanest ends in the game but none, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, stack up to Quinn. Arians compared Quinn to Mathis, but the Rams’ star is younger, quicker and just as crafty. Quinn abused Brown in Week 1, beating him for three sacks and two forced fumbles. That showing helped start the end of Brown’s stay in Arizona and opened the door for Sowell.
How long Sowell can stay in Arizona will depend on how well he steps up every week. He’s under contract through next season, but in a league where left tackles come at a premium and are usually among the highest paid players in a locker room, the question of whether he’s the Cardinals long-term answer has yet to be answered.
But Sowell has already learned to expect the unexpected. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by Tampa Bay and expected to spend his entire career with the Bucs. Then Indy signed him and he expected to be a Colt for life. Then the Cards signed him and, well, Sowell realized he won’t be in one place forever. Sowell has the business of the NFL figured out but still didn’t expect to be a starter in Arizona.
Arians called Sowell a “work in progress” and said there’s potential for him to be the Cardinals left tackle for years to come. He’s allowed just seven sacks and 28 quarterback hurries. The sacks, Arians can live with. It’s the strip sacks, such as the one Cole got on Carson Palmer on the Cards’ third play Sunday that “will kill you.”
It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but then again, when Sowell, who went undrafted in 2012 and played in just 10 games for the Colts -- and just one game at tackle -- is facing a lineup of top-tier ends with less than a full season of experience, has to prove himself against the best.
“I don’t think any left tackle is ready to handle any left defensive end in this league but it’s a part of the business,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “We’re going to do whatever we can do to try to help both our tackle and our guards, as well. He’s got to get his mind right. He’s trying to and he will do a good job.”
The pressure hangs over Sowell every game. One bad block can lead to a touchdown, or even worse, it can end Palmer’s season. Cole’s sack on Palmer in the first quarter last weekend injured Palmer’s throwing elbow, leaving him questionable for Sunday’s game against the Rams.
Being a left tackle isn’t for everybody but it’s for Sowell, even with a guy like Quinn coming to play every week. But that’s just life in the NFL and Sowell has to get used to it.
“Every Sunday, it’s miserable,” Goodwin said. “I don’t think there’s ever a defensive end you go, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to play this guy.’
“You think about it, that guy is probably one of the highest paid guys in the league and if I’m not mistaken, I think Mr. Quinn is coming close to a contract year so he’s playing at a high level.”
As if Sowell didn’t have enough to worry about.