Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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NEXT-GEN STATS: What's up with Carson Palmer and the Cards' offense?
Carson Palmer, for the most part, has played at an extremely high level since linking up with Bruce Arians in the desert in 2013, enjoying the best season of his career last year. But I'm beginning to wonder if the 36-year-old is starting to lose his mojo. Despite starting the season with a pair ofsolid performances in which he posted passer ratings of 104.7 and 124.9, respectively, Palmer hasn't looked like the same pinpoint thrower who has diced up defensive backfields with a chef's precision for most of his tenure with the Arizona Cardinals.
Now, I know it's easy for me to suggest the veteran is a little off after his four-interception effort against the Buffalo Bills last week, but I believe Palmer's play started declining near the end of last season, with the regression continuing through the first three games of the 2016 campaign. Here are some numbers for you to chew on ...
Since Week 16 of the 2015 season (including the playoffs), Palmer has posted a 58 percent completion rate, with a 12:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 77.1 passer rating. Not to mention, he posted just two 300-yard games during that span after surpassing the 300-yard mark nine times in the 14 games preceding his slump. With those numbers in hand, I dug into the All-22 Coaches Film to see if Palmer's sagging play was due to his physical deterioration or wily defensive coordinators finally catching up to the Cardinals' scheme.
From a talent standpoint, Palmer remains one of the best pure passers in the NFL. He whips the ball to every area of the field with exceptional zip and velocity. In addition, he continues to show outstanding touch and ball placement on intermediate and deep throws. When he's disciplined with his footwork and fundamentals in the pocket, Palmer is not only capable of making every throw in the book, but he can still do it in spectacular fashion.
Granted, he's not the spry athlete he was when he entered the NFL as the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, but he remains an upper-echelon quarterback with solid physical tools. That's why I believe Palmer's recent struggles can be blamed on opponents figuring out the Cardinals and not on a decline from a physical standpoint.
That's not to diss Arian's play design or scheme. The clever offensive architect does a great job of creating big-play opportunities for his playmakers on the perimeter on deep balls. Last season, Palmer thrived in the "bombs away" scheme on the way to ranking third in the NFL with 15 passes of 40-plus yards, behind only Ben Roethlisberger (17) and Eli Manning (16). In addition, he finished with the third-most passes of 20-plus yards (65) and tied Blake Bortles, Cam Newton and Eli Manning with the second-most touchdown passes (35).
Considering Palmer's success pushing the ball downfield, I'm not surprised teams are taking the vertical game out of the equation when facing the Cardinals. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I've noticed that defensive coordinators are positioning their safeties deeper in coverage, to discourage the veteran from taking shots. Although defensive play callers are mixing in a variety of man or zone looks, the elimination of the deep ball has been the focal point of the most successful defensive game plans against Palmer and the Cardinals. Going back to last season's NFC Championship Game, the Panthers used a variety of zone-blitzes and split-field coverages (Cover 2 or Cover 4/Quarters) to take away the deep shot.
In Week 1 of this season, New England played an extensive amount of Cover 1 (man-free) in the back end to limit the deep ball. The Patriots positioned their cornerbacks with an outside shade to funnel receivers to the designated helpers between the hashes (post safety or underneath cutter). With the cornerbacks perfectly aligned to take away the go-route on the outside (the outside leverage forces receivers wider to get down the boundary) and slot defenders poised to take away the out-breaking routes by alignment, Palmer was forced to throw the ball into crowds on short and intermediate routes over the middle.
Buffalo used a combination of both strategies to force Palmer into a shaky performance in Week 3. Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman mixed in some Cover 1, with the corners shadowing from distance to complement their "quarters" coverage looks. The corners varied their techniques to keep Arizona's receivers on their toes, but it was apparent they were instructed to stay on top of their assigned pass catchers instead of playing from a trail or hip-pocket position. As a result, the Bills were able to keep the ball in front of the defense and eliminate the big plays that fuel the Cardinals' offense.
Looking at the stats, the tactics have worked well. This season, Palmer has completed just 43.6 percent of his passes that travel 10-plus air yards, for a 47.6 passer rating and a 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last season, Palmer posted a 55.4 percent completion rate on such passes, along with a 106.8 passer rating on the strength of a 19:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
While Palmer will bear the brunt of the criticism for those poor numbers, I think some of the blame should fall on the shoulders of the Cardinals' receivers for their inability to create separation on the perimeter. Michael Floyd, in particular, has struggled to get away from coverage on the outside. Floyd also leads the team in drops (three) and hasn't put his stamp on the game like a dominant playmaker should. In addition, opponents have made a concerted effort to take away John Brown on vertical routes. Last season, he tallied six catches of at least 40 yards, but he has yet to deliver an explosive play in 2016.
While the 33-year-old Larry Fitzgerald has played at a high level, he is certainly not a deep threat at this stage of his career. Thus, the Cardinals are forced to play small ball in a scheme that doesn't feature a lot of "dink and dunk" concepts. Until Arians tweaks his game plan or the Cardinals' receivers find a way to shake free from the smothering coverage on the perimeter, Palmer will continue to look like an aging quarterback losing his game, despite possessing the physical tools to play at an elite level.