If an earthquake can ever actually be a good thing, then the Cardinals are fortunate they have a seismic force roaming their defensive backfield in longtime NFL safety Antoine Bethea. Even at 34, he’s still incredibly active and dangerous and is always ready to shake, rattle and roll.
“His value to us is off the Richter scale because of his mental abilities and the things that has seen just by playing and being a starter for so many years,” secondary coach Dave Merritt said.
“He’s still fast and he’s still explosive,” defensive coordinator Al Holcomb added. “Even though he’s getting up there a little bit, he’s still doing a great job for us. We’re lucky to have him.”
Entering his 13th season, Bethea is only with his third NFL team. This is his second year with the Cardinals, but he’s on his ninth head coach in Steve Wilks. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same in Bethea’s eyes. In whatever defense he has played in throughout the years, he’s always been the epicenter, tasked with manning the middle of the backfield as his team’s starting strong safety.
He’ll be there again Saturday night when Arizona opens its preseason schedule with a game against the visiting Los Angeles Chargers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
In 177 career regular-season games, Bethea has started 168 of them and racked up 814 tackles. Last season, he set a career high with five interceptions for the Cardinals. And Bethea is looking to do even more now that Wilks has changed up Arizona’s defense to a 4-3 scheme and is letting Merritt and Holcomb move Bethea around like a shock wave.
“My expectations for us this year is that we can be a top five defense, be top five turnover-wise,” Bethea said. “I think that’s very realistic. With the defensive front that we have, the way Chandler (Jones) played last year, and the way we ended the season as a defense, I think we can build on that. I think we can be a very dominant defense.”
Among Cardinals position players, only wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is older than Bethea. He’s got about 11 months on the defensive back, but he’s also benefitted by playing the latter portions of his career as more of a slot receiver. Bethea hasn’t had that luxury. If he can’t cover and defend, he’ll get exposed, plain and simple.
And yet he’s still doing it at an incredibly high level.
“Coach Holcomb and I talked about this in the spring and really again a couple days ago and I agreed, he’s extremely smart, very intelligent,” Wilks said. “He runs the defense, but you’re not losing a lot from an athletic standpoint. The guy can still move around and it’s unbelievable. He’s not one of those declining vets. He still has a little bit in the tank.
“That’s unusual at times for a safety, just for the mere fact of how much they bang and the wear and tear on their body and how much they run. That’s why normally you see the smarts there, but you see a little bit of decline in speed and those kind of things. But this guy, he’s still able to play the deep post and make plays.”
It’s helped, Bethea said, that he’s never really had any serious injuries. But even staying healthy has its issues when trying to stay ahead of Father Time, who eventually comes for all in the NFL.
“When I was younger, I could roll up out the bed and go out there and get it going,” Bethea said. “As I get older, the more I have to do. Now, it’s definitely massages twice a week, hot and cold tub every day, getting stretched every day, getting my rest and trying to do different things each year.”
Cardinals safety Antonie Bethea always looked up to his older brother while learning football when he was young.
Katherine Fitzgerald, The Republic | azcentral.com
Last year, Bethea integrated yoga into his weekly workout regimen. This year, he said he also plans to introduce Pilates into his regular workouts. Most importantly, he’s always mindful of what he eats. For years he’s tried to follow a strict, nutritional diet.
“Sometimes, I’m not as strict as I could be,” he said, smiling. “On those days when the food’s not so good, there’s days when the taste buds get to kick it in, if you know what I mean.”
It’s a combination of savviness and staying in the best shape possible which enables Bethea to continue being a productive NFL safety like other pros that excelled well into their 30s. He hopes that whenever he calls it a career, he will be remembered like Brian Dawkins, John Lynch, Rodney Harrison, Troy Polamalu and the Cardinals’ own Adrian Wilson.
“There have been a lot of guys that have played at a high level at this position,” Bethea said. “You won’t be moving like you were in year one, year two, but the knowledge of the game, it helps you get to the ball quicker. I still love playing the game. It’s still fun. It’s intriguing. Plus, I love seeing the new guys come in every year and being able to pass my knowledge on to them. That’s important to me.”
It’s also important to the Cardinals, who have a batch of young players on defense that can learn from him. Take second-year linebacker Haason Reddick, for instance. He said Bethea is like an older brother he can turn to for anything.
“You can ask him anything and he’ll tell you,” Reddick said. “When you’ve got a dude like that with so much experience in the NFL, you’d be a fool not to learn as much as you can from him. He’s somebody you definitely look up to and a guy to go get advice from.”
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.