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azcentral sports sat down with Robert Nkemdiche and three other Cardinals players to discuss how and why their hands are so important to what they do on game days
Nearly every problem that continued to plague the Cardinals during their first eight games of the season always seemed to bring a similar refrain from coach Steve Wilks and his coordinators.
“We’ve got to do a better job using our hands,” Wilks must have said a hundred times.
Poor hand usage typically got blamed when the defensive line kept getting pushed out of its gaps and was surrendering huge chunks of rushing yards. When the offensive line and skill players alike kept failing to maintain blocks in pass-protection situations, hands again were said to be at fault.
Incorrect hand technique by defensive backs, we were told, is what also kept leading to the steady stream of big splash plays down the field. Oh, and all those early dropped passes by the receivers? You guessed it. Hands.
If the eyes are truly the windows to the soul, then for football players, the hands are the cornerstones that either build success or deconstruct one to failure. They’re used deftly and differently from position to position, but make no mistake, an NFL player’s two most essential tools are his hands.
As an amputee with one hand, Seahawks rookie linebacker Shaquem Griffin is proof that even a one-handed player can make it in the league if he knows what he’s doing with the hand that he has.
“Hands? Oh man, that’s like the main component of football is hands,” Cardinals defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche said.
azcentral sports sat down with Nkemdiche and three other Cardinals players to discuss how and why their hands are so critically important to what they specifically do on game days. One slip up or mistake regarding hand placement, they all agreed, can mean the difference between a win and a loss. It can extend careers and it can kill careers.
‘It’s a dirty (expletive) game’
For a defensive lineman like Nkemdiche, the Cardinals’ third-year pro and former first-round draft pick, hands are where it starts and basically where it ends. His feet are almost as important, but if he’s not using his hands to combat all the different ways he gets held, grabbed and dragged, he’s not going to get to the quarterback and he’s not going to get into the backfield at all.
“It’s all about leverage and if you don’t use your hands the way you need to, you’re going to negate yourself from being able to penetrate on the play,” he said. “There’s no perfect way to do it because everybody is different. You really just have to figure out what works best for you.”
Nkemdiche is blessed with a remarkable “get-off,” but his lightning-quick initial burst at the snap of the ball isn’t enough to get the job done. He’s still trying to perfect his hand technique, which gets him in trouble at times. He’s learning from one of the best in veteran teammate Corey Peters, especially at it relates to jamming the opponent’s chest to stop their charge and allowing yourself to carry momentum forward.
“He’s a technician at it,” Nkemdiche said. “I’m always picking new tricks up from Corey.”
One of Nkemdiche’s strengths is his brute strength, especially with his meat hook-sized, 10¾-inch hands.
“It’s a weapon,” he said, thrusting one hand up like a massive uppercut to the chin. “Hey, it’s fine if it’s nasty. Football is a dirty (expletive) game. Either way, hands matter. You have to be really violent and vicious with them. If you’re not, it’s going to be harder to make plays.”
‘Punching is everything’
Right guard Justin Pugh suffered a broken bone in his left hand four weeks ago in Minnesota and despite the pain, he was fitted with an assortment of casts and clubs in hopes he could get back on the field. Nothing quite worked, however, and only now does it look like he will be able play when the Cardinals meet the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sunday.
“If I can’t use my hand, if I can’t use my fingers so I can grab and hold on, I’m a liability out there,” Pugh said, adding, “Punching is everything for us. Our job is to disrupt the rush of the defensive linemen. Those guys obviously use their hands, but a lot of times they’re just lowering their helmet and bull rushing. That’s why D-linemen can play with a club on their hand. They don’t really use their fingers and thumbs and grab on as much as we do.
“But we can’t do our job with a club on. I tried it and it doesn’t work. I could tell you that first hand, no pun intended.”
Pugh broke his hand while “punching” a Vikings’ defensive lineman. He didn’t actually throw a punch, of course. That’s just lingo for violently bringing the attack to an opposing player by thrusting two open-handed shoves with the heels of your hands into his chest between the numbers, especially during passing situations. When run blocking, guards will lean on their shoulders a tad more, but the hands still always come into play and if they get knocked down by an opponent, they become worthless.
Pugh admits offensive linemen “could probably get called for holding on every single play,” but the way to avoid that, he said, is by keeping your feet moving while using your hands to stop, steer and turn defenders away. The key is “staying inside” with your hands, he said.
“Another thing is be nice to the officials and they might give you the benefit of the doubt – maybe for the first time,” Pugh said, smiling. “Hey, it’s human nature. If you’re an ass—-, people are going to treat you accordingly.”
‘You’ve got to be really sly’
Speaking of the refs, no one seems to get singled out and called for more penalties than defensive players, particularly cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers. Just ask the Cardinals’ Budda Baker, who plays both defensive back positions and also dabbles here and there as a hybrid-like linebacker in certain scenarios.
“Hands are everything and with the way the league is right now with so many guys getting penalties and fines and that type of stuff, you really have to know how to use your hands the right way,” the second-year pro from Washington said.
For a player like Baker, who is going to have contact with receivers, tight ends, running backs and even offensive linemen, he tries to use his hands to push, punch and brace. When he’s relying on his shoulders to make hits and line up tackles, he makes sure he extends his arms for another very purposeful reason.
“If I use my shoulder, a lot of times they’re going to just grab me and the refs are not going to call that,” Baker said. “If you use your hands and extend, the ref can see that they’re holding you. Plus, when you extend like that, you can break off and it’s easier to shed blockers.
When it comes to forcing turnovers, Baker also attacks the football in different ways with his hands. He’ll punch it, try to rip it out, and sometimes grab an arm to allow a teammate to steal it away. Since turning pro, Baker has also become much more aware of how opponents will grab his hands and arms as a tactical ploy. Nobody is better than that, he said, than veteran teammate Larry Fitzgerald.
“When you’re guarding a receiver, sometimes he knows when you’re going to use your hands so guys like Larry, they’ll pull you through by using your own hands to their advantage,” Baker said. “You’ve got to be really sly with guys like that, especially Larry. When I first got here, I never had a wide receiver grab my arm and pull me through until Larry did it my rookie year. That’s when you realize you’ve got to get it in and get it out.”
‘It doesn’t say ‘spectacular’ catch’
As ultra-important as his hands are to him, and on Sunday they can help him become second on the NFL’s all-time receiving yards list behind only Jerry Rice, Fitzgerald said they come second on his list of priorities.
“They’re the most important thing besides my head,” he said. “I’m using my head more than anything out there, just thinking about watching coverages, recognizing what teams are trying to do to me, watching what’s going on and what I have to do and what adjustments I have to make on every single play. I’m talking about the mental approach of the game. Then it’s the hands, for sure.”
Fitzgerald uses them better than almost anyone, from not only catching the most difficult of passes and tucking the football safely away, but from using them to block, gain separation, break tackles and throw the occasional stiff arm. He’s also one of the best as using his hands to shield a defender, knock their own hands down and a host full of other secret tricks of the trade.
The one thing Fitzgerald tries to stay away from, even though he’s great at it, is the one-handed grab. Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants might have made it popular among today’s young NFL fans, but Fitzgerald was doing it years ago – as a last resort.
“I try to catch every single ball I possibly can with two hands,” Fitzgerald said. “Only last ditch do I ever reach out with just the one hand. I have a two times’ better chance to catch the ball with two hands then I do with one. A lot of guys do just put one hand out when I feel they should put two on it.
“It’s like my son. We play catch all the time and every time he wants to catch it with one hand. I don’t know if it’s because of Odell. They just want to catch everything with one hand. I don’t get it. The stat sheet says ‘catch,’ it doesn’t say ‘spectacular’ catch. You drop more one-handed catches than you would two-hand catches.
“My thing is about making the catch. I don’t care if it gets on social media or they talk about it on ESPN. It’s just another catch closer to Jerry Rice. That’s all that matters.”
Reach McManaman at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 3-6 on 1580-AM The Fanatic with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-3 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.
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