Rookie responds to tough NFL initiation

Updated: October 29, 2003, 6:44 PM ET
ESPN

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona rookie defensive end Calvin Pace has gone against the likes of Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden in his first few games as an NFL starter.

"I've gone against some guys who are getting a lot of money, some of the best in the league right now," Pace said after Wednesday's practice. "But in the long run, I think it's going to be good for me."

The rugged initiation resulted in his best performance yet in the Cardinals' 16-13 overtime victory Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. He recovered a fumble, led the defensive line with five tackles -- four of them solo -- and earned his first sack as a pro.

Coach Dave McGinnis gave Pace one of the game balls. The others went to running back Marcel Shipp and the third to special teams player James Darling.

"Calvin's been playing fine all year," McGinnis said. "He's a very physical defensive end. He just hasn't had any sacks. He's been up against some very good left tackles. If you're a right end in this league, you're going to be rushing against great left tackles."

Going into Sunday's game, the entire Arizona defensive line had just one in six games. The Cardinals couldn't get much pressure on the quarterback without blitzing. But that changed on Sunday, when the linemen got two sacks. Pace pulled down Jeff Garcia on a third-and-13 situation in the second quarter.

"It just felt like the weight of the whole team was off my shoulders," Pace said. "It's something I don't have to worry about anymore. I think they'll come now. It was a good day for me."

Analysts criticized the Cardinals for taking Pace in the first round with the No. 18 selection overall. Most thought Pace, a third-team All-American at Wake Forest, would be available in the second round, or even the third.

The Cardinals could have drafted local favorite Terrell Suggs, who set the NCAA single-season sack record at Arizona State, with the No. 6 pick, but traded down with Green Bay for Nos. 17 and 18.

Pace didn't expect to start right away for Arizona, but Kyle Vanden Bosch went down with a knee injury in the exhibition season, and the rookie has started at right end in all seven games.

"It's rough man," Pace said. "I think it's probably one of the hardest positions to go out and try to play as a rookie, just because you're going to be facing the best guy on the line, week in and week out."

Arizona's early-season schedule sent Pace against some of the league's best offensive tackles.

"They're just big, athletic guys who have played six or seven years, been to a couple of Pro Bowls, a couple of them in the Super Bowl," Pace said. "They've got every trick. When they see a rookie, I'm sure they just light up. But you've got to keep your motor going and make something happen."

The Cardinals have made improving the pass rush a top priority for two seasons. A year ago, they drafted tackle Wendell Bryant in the first round. But he missed all mini-camps and the entire training camp in a contract dispute, and never did catch up. Only now is Bryant, splitting time at tackle and end, beginning to show he can be an effective NFL player.

Pace, on the other hand, missed only the first 2{ days of training camp and took part in nearly all of the earlier summer workouts.

"Nothing against Wendell," Pace said, "but if I'd have been in Wendell's position I think it would be a disaster for me right now, honestly."

Pace doesn't think the critics have changed their tune yet.

"Every week I'm going to have to do more and more," he said. "The end of the season, we'll see where I am."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index