When the first-year utility player intercepted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in overtime of the Cardinals' thrilling 37-34 Thursday night win in Week 7, he was playing his fifth defensive snap of the game and his 79th of the season.
Until that point, the playing time for the No. 8 overall pick out of Clemson had been slow to rise, with an average of 11.3 defensive snaps per game. But beginning with the next game -- against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 -- Simmons has been getting more playing time: 118 snaps in the past four games for an average of 29.5 per game.
"I feel like ever since I got consecutive snaps, that I've been able to find a comfort level within the game and feel the flow of it, and be able to be myself and just play," Simmons said.
It was "definitely frustrating" for Simmons during the first half of the season. After leading Clemson in tackles for two seasons, he wasn't used to not playing.
"It was kind of just battling that part with just outside of football with keeping my happiness and peace within myself," he said.
It wasn't so much that Simmons was doing things wrong as it was that he needed to learn how to play in the NFL. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to cancel organized team activities, minicamps and preseason games, which put Simmons behind. Even though Simmons was learning the Cardinals' scheme over video calls, he missed about 1,200 practice snaps, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph estimated, by not having any offseason practices. The first time Simmons stepped foot onto a field as a member of the Cardinals was Aug. 12 -- just about a month before his first NFL game.
"He wanted to be a starter from Day 1," Joseph said, "and he just wasn't ready."
The Cardinals drafted Simmons with the idea of using him in a similar fashion to how Clemson used him: a four- or five-position athlete who could do it all. This summer, the Cardinals remained steadfast that Simmons was going to be an inside linebacker -- and he is, along with nickel cornerback, dime corner and safety.
When Week 1 finally came, Simmons was beginning what essentially equated to his preseason. Those game were "tough," Joseph said.
"I was just learning on the fly the differences within the game," Simmons said. "And it's definitely a lot faster, more physical, everyone's good at this level. ... I guess I probably looked bad but it was all just a learning process.
"Some things have to fall apart to come together, so it's kind of the way I took it."
There have been some notable struggles. A 76-yard touchdown catch in Week 1 by San Francisco 49ers running back Raheem Mostert, on which he was defended by Simmons but cut in front of him and went untouched to the end zone. Two 15-yard penalties by Simmons at New England, the second of which came late in the fourth quarter and helped move the Patriots into range for the winning field goal.
WHAT IS HAPPENING pic.twitter.com/XIOhnU6Rtr— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) October 26, 2020
Simmons has also had one sack in each of the past two games. And, of course, that interception of Wilson.
"That's always confirmation for players to make big plays," Joseph said. "From that moment on, it definitely changed for Isaiah, as far as his body language, his confidence and playing NFL football.
"It was definitely a huge moment for our team and huge for Isaiah to make that play, and it definitely turned his mindset a little bit."
All it took was a little patience.
"He was patient," Joseph said. "Our staff was patient, and kept pushing and working with him. And now you see why [general manager] Steve Keim took Isaiah in the top 10. I mean, he's going to be a special player. He's still learning. He's not there yet but you can see the special ability."