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Cardinals pass rush could get a boost with return of linebacker Alex Okafor


TEMPE, Arizona — Alex Okafor's return could provide a big boost to the Arizona Cardinals defense.

The third-year linebacker and pass rush specialist is practicing in full this week after missing the past three games with a calf injury. He got an extra week to heal with the Cardinals' bye last week and said he's 100 percent.

Okafor had been a starter until he got hurt at Detroit in Week 5. Now he's ready to rejoin a group in need of getting more pressure on quarterbacks.

"There's no better time to come back," Okafor said. "'Sunday Night Football' against a team that's been on top of the division, on top of the league for the past two years. It's a great opportunity."

The Cardinals are third in the NFL in yards allowed per game, but they have only 13 sacks this season. Only two other teams have fewer sacks. But they face a Seattle Seahawks offense that leads the league in sacks allowed with 31.

Okafor, who led the Cardinals with eight sacks in 2014, had two in the first game of this season. He hasn't had one since and is still tied for the 2015 team lead in sacks.

"Sacks are funny. They're going to come," Okafor said. "You never want to miss games, but the bye week came at the perfect time and it's halfway during the season, so it kind of gave all of my body a rest."

Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said Okafor was a disruptive factor in the subsequent games before his injury.

"He had the quarterback moving out of the pocket for things we were asking him to do," Bettcher said. "If you look at the Detroit game, before he got hurt he was having a good game."

Okafor's return could impact playing time for several players. Okafor likely won't play the amount of snaps he did before the injury. As he is worked back into the rotation, his time on the field could limit snaps for Markus Golden and veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney.

Coach Bruce Arians said earlier in the week that Okafor will play around 30 snaps, alternating with Freeney though the two could be on the field together at times.

"I'm getting ready as if I am going to play the whole game," Okafor said. "The reason why they're easing me in right now is because we have so much depth. If we didn't have some of these guys that have come along and picked up a Freeney, I think I'd have to be rushed back."

Golden and Freeney have played well. Freeney has a sack in each of the past two games and Okafor has learned from watching the former All-Pro. Bettcher has decisions to make with playing time, but is thrilled to have Okafor at his disposal again.

"He's a guy that worked his butt off in the offseason. He was obviously disappointed when the injury happened," Bettcher said of Okafor. "But he's feeling great, running around well."

NOTES: Center A.Q. Shipley got work with the first-team offense on Thursday and could start Sunday over Lyle Sendlein, who was limited in practice with a shoulder injury. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said the offense won't miss a beat with Shipley. ... WR John Brown (hamstring), WR Brittan Golden (groin) and CB Jerraud Powers (hamstring) were limited in Thursday's practice.

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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