Carson Palmer, the 37-year-old quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, now in his 14th NFL season, is second in the league in pass completions and also second in net passing yards. Pretty good, huh?
Those numbers would seem to indicate the start of a great year for Palmer, but in fact, he is going through exactly the opposite. The downside of Palmer’s production statistics is that they have been accumulated while attempting the most passes of any NFL quarterback, enduring the most sacks and quarterback hits, and standing just 29th among his peers for completion percentage.
With running back David Johnson out with a wrist injury suffered in the season opener, Palmer has been battered while the Cardinals have gotten off to a 2-2 start, with the wins coming in overtime against Indianapolis and San Francisco, a pair of the league’s lesser lights.
Looking at the matchup Sunday between the Eagles and Cardinals at Lincoln Financial Field, if you want to point to an area in which the Eagles appear to have a decided advantage, the battle between their defensive line and an Arizona offensive line that has had trouble protecting Palmer is an obvious place to start. It could also be wrong.
“No matter what the book is right now, we have to be ready for anything,” defensive end Chris Long said. “You can come in and say, ‘OK, here’s a chance to get them in third and long, and the numbers are in our favor, but teams make adjustments, they watch film, and they get paid a lot of money, too. I expect them to have a good game plan.”
Having a good game plan is fine, but that can’t offset a talent deficit or put injured players back on the field. The Cardinals are last in the league in rushing offense, averaging 57 yards, and that is why opposing defenses have been able to get after Palmer, sacking him 17 times and hitting him an additional 43 times. (As a side note, the Eagles’ protection could be doing better in this regard, as well. Carson Wentz, who can hold onto the ball too long, has been sacked 12 times and hit 31 times.)
The Eagles got four sacks in each of the first two games, but have recorded just two in the two games after that. One difference, obviously, is that tackle Fletcher Cox played only 18 snaps in those two games, and opponents could pick and choose where to place their double-team attention with Cox not in the game. It’s an admittedly short sample, and the Arizona game could be a good indication of whether there is something more amiss with the defensive pressure than just the absence of Cox. If they can’t get to this guy, there might be a real problem.
“A little bit like quarterbacks and touchdown passes, defensive lines get judged by sacks … and it’s just life in the business,” coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “We need to be more productive across the board. We started off good with a couple of four-sack games, [but] it was going to be hard to sack [Giants quarterback] Eli Manning. We could have rushed 12 and I don’t know if we could have got him; the ball was coming out so fast.”
Palmer is not necessarily that kind of quick-release quarterback, particularly when much of the Arizona offense is predicated on hitting longer-developing routes to a talented group of wide receivers. Coach Bruce Arians has to figure out something or he’s going to have Drew Stanton at quarterback before long. He has to either devise a running game out of thin air or speed up the passing game.
“Yeah, when teams play us, that ball gets out of their hands a lot quicker,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “This is going to be about one-on-one matchups. They know what we’re going to do, but the mentality has to be that you’re going to beat your man.”
Arizona’s struggles recently are a reminder that good doesn’t necessarily last long in the NFL. The Cardinals were 13-3 in 2015 and went to the NFC championship game. A year ago, getting older quickly and suffering too many injuries, the Cards drifted to 7-8-1, and they appear headed for the same lukewarm result this year.
If Arizona is to turn things around, there’s good reason the Cardinals would circle Sunday’s game as a possible starting point. The Eagles are followed on the schedule by Tampa Bay, the L.A. Rams, and San Francisco. With a win here – and Arizona’s defense is very capable of keeping games close – a little bit of a run against those other teams could put the Cards at 6-2 before they play a measuring-stick game against Seattle. By that time, they might be a lot healthier and, well, this is the kind of thing teams have to tell themselves.
The Eagles are capable of busting up those plans Sunday, however, and the likeliest method would be putting Carson Palmer on his back frequently. Doing so without Fletcher Cox would be an encouraging sign for the defense. It’s still early in the season, and the Eagles will exit this field with a winning record regardless, but this is also one of those games in which teams that aren’t quite ready reveal themselves. So far, that hasn’t been the Eagles.