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Journeyman linebacker having big season

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) _ James Darling has played so well it has been impossible to bench him.

The Arizona Cardinals' outside linebacker, in his eighth NFL season out of Washington State, went four years without a start. But he was in the opening-game lineup this season because of an injury to Raynoch Thompson.

He plays every down,'' coach Dennis Green said Thursday.He's a very versatile player, smart and real intense.''

Although he missed one game with a calf injury, Darling leads the Cardinals with 50 tackles, his career-best by 14 even though the season is only half done. He had a career-best 14 tackles against Buffalo two weeks ago.

I'm probably playing the best that I've played in a while,'' said Darling, as mild-mannered off the field as he is mean and hard-hitting on it.I've played good in the nickel, I just haven't played regular defense in a while.''

Raised by his maternal grandmother in tiny Kettle Falls, Wash., Darling was an all-Pac-10 middle linebacker but undersized by NFL standards at 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds.

Still, he started 24 games for Philadelphia in the first three seasons. But he went down with a knee injury knee and never reclaimed his starting job.

Darling was the extra linebacker in ``nickel'' sets on passing situations for three years with the New York Jets and last season with Arizona.

When Green took over this year, he liked Darling's quickness, intelligence and energy. Still, Darling played in the nickel schemes in the preseason before getting his opportunity when Thompson was hurt.

He's not as big as maybe some people want him to be,'' Green said.But I think he fits in with us because our thing is not size. Our thing is quickness and beating guys to the gap, and he does an excellent job of that.

``And then he's dependable. He knows exactly what's going on all the time. He wants to win.''

In the one game Darling didn't play, a 31-28 overtime loss at San Francisco, 49ers tight end Eric Johnson caught 13 passes for 162 yards.

Darling has 37 unassisted tackles, 13 assisted, three tackles for losses, one interception and one forced fumble.

His biggest plays come from hustle.

Just don't ever quit on the ball,'' Darling said.If they throw the ball to the other side of the field, just run over there. I forced a fumble like that in the Rams game. And the interception, I was just running to the ball.''

He laughed when asked about how someone so nice can turn in such bone-jarring hits.

That's the other side of me,'' Darling said.I just try to be aggressive, not be soft, and get to the ball.''

That's the attitude of the entire Arizona defense, which has allowed big chunks of yards at times but is plus-nine in turnovers, tied for second in the NFC and third in the NFL.

We're focusing on being aggressive, just getting downhill,'' Darling said.Even if somebody blocks you, be in a bad mood when you get there.''

Thompson is listed as probable for Sunday's game against the New York Giants, but that shouldn't mean less playing time for Darling, not with the season he's having.

When you go from the penthouse to the outhouse, once you get back in the penthouse, you just have fun,'' Darling said.You appreciate it. I've been having a great time, just trying to get into position to make the plays.''

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