The Arizona Cardinals’ top-ranked offense offers matchup problems galore because of their speed and playmaking at receiver.
But make no mistake, the player the Green Bay Packers have to build their defensive game plan around in the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday night is quarterback Carson Palmer.
Palmer, 36, has been one of the NFL’s better pure throwers since entering the league as the No. 1 draft pick overall in 2004, though that hasn’t always translated to winning play. But last year he used his long rehabilitation from knee-reconstruction surgery to make over his entire body, and that improved conditioning plus his pairing with one of the game’s premier offensive coaches in Bruce Arians has Palmer playing by far the best football of his career.
“I mean, he’s gone to a whole ‘nother place this year,” said an assistant coach with one of the Cardinals’ rivals in the NFC West Division. “If you’re going to pick out one thing, what’s Arizona all about, Carson Palmer is spinnin’ it. Like, special spinnin’ it.”
This week I spoke with four assistant coaches and scouts from the NFC West about the Cardinals, and all said Palmer has become a premier player this season. One ranked him among the top five quarterbacks in the game, and another said he’d vote Palmer the league’s MVP.
“He’s been the most consistent quarterback from the beginning of the year until the end,” one scout said. “Cam Newton didn’t come on until halfway through the season, along with Russell Wilson. Aaron Rodgers hasn’t looked good all year, he looks very uncomfortable in his skin other than the other night (at Washington), where he looked like the Aaron Rodgers we all know. Carson Palmer won’t get it, but he deserves the MVP. He’s had a hell of a year.”
Before we get to the coaches’ and scouts’ recommendations for defending Palmer, here’s a quick look at his numbers. Palmer finished the regular season with the NFL’s third-best passer rating (104.6), tied for second-most touchdown passes (35) and the highest average per pass attempt (8.7 yards). That final number is an indication that he’s triggerman for the most explosive passing game in the league.
But for all the respect that Palmer’s division rivals give him, all four coaches and scouts said the same thing when asked what Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers should emphasize in his game plan: Do whatever he must to hit Palmer.
“You have to hit him early in the game,” one of the coaches said, “because then he’s a different cat because he’s 30-some years old. If he’s hot, he’s really unstoppable. But if you get after him a little bit he has a tendency to throw one up (for grabs). Even if it’s a late hit, it might be worth a 15-yard penalty to get him shaking. But he’s had a hell of a year.”
Said a scout: “He gets hit a few times, he does not play as good. His whole game is, if he can hold the ball and take it deep on you, he’s really good. He can throw the ball deep. But if you get some hits on him …”
No quarterback likes getting hit, so in that way Palmer is no different than any others. But as they get into their mid-30s they mind it more, as we saw even with Brett Favre later in his career.
In Palmer’s case, his greatest weakness his entire career has been throwing interceptions. His career interceptions percentage of 3.0 is basically double of Rodgers’ 1.6 percent. So he has a history of turning the ball over.
In his first year in Arizona, 2013, he led the Cardinals to a 10-6 record but threw a career-high 22 interceptions. And as quarterback in Oakland just before that, in 2011 and ’12, he threw 30 interceptions in 25 games, and his nickname according to one of the scouts became “Pick six.”
His last two seasons have been much better — 14 interceptions in 22 games. But he’s not a scrambler, so pass rushers can change the way he plays.
“He gets uncomfortable (when hit a lot) and he’ll chuck and duck, he’ll try to get out of the way,” a scout said. “Generally he keeps good control of the football, but every now and then he’ll give it up. … Very seldom will he eat the ball.”
How and whether the seven-point-underdog Packers get to Palmer is another matter.
Though their defense ranks No. 5 in the NFL in sacks percentage, they don’t have the pass-rush talent to get consistent pressure with only their front four.
Their Packers’ best pure rusher, Clay Matthews, now is nearly a full-time inside linebacker, so he rushes on inside blitzes and from the edge in dime personnel. He and outside linebacker Julius Peppers are tied for the team lead in combined sacks, hits and hurries at 54, according to Pro Football Focus. Mike Daniels, the team’s top inside rusher, is next at 53.
Palmer, now in is his third season working with the highly respected Arians, has thrown 11 interceptions and has a 2.0 percentage this year, so he’s generally taken care of the ball. But the Cardinals’ regular-season finale against Seattle showed what can happen against a defense that can bring the heat.
Keep in mind that Arizona already had locked up the No. 2 seeding going into that game, and Arians afterward said he went in planning to pull Palmer at halftime, which he did. But it’s still worth noting that the Seahawks were ahead 30-6 at the half, and Palmer had only a 60.2 rating (12-for-25 passing, 129 yards, one interception).
In Arizona's 38-8 win over the Packers 2½ weeks ago, the Packers had two sacks and four hits on Palmer, who put up a 107.8 rating. That game probably is a poor barometer, though, because the score was out of hand by early in the second half.
“(The Packers) have enough (rush) to get it done,” one of the scouts said. “The problem you have is with the multitude of receivers they have, (Palmer) gets the ball out quick. So (Capers) is going to have to dial up some pretty interesting blitzes that (the Cardinals) haven’t seen.
“You bring five, you bring the middle linebacker, then all of a sudden the middle of your zone is wide open. Seattle got after him because of the four-man rush, they have one of the best four-man rushes. Carolina’s in that boat. They can rush four and sit back and play defense, where a lot of teams have to bring that fifth defender, that’s what kills them (against Arizona).”
Said one of the coaches: “(Palmer) has seen a lot. If you show him something new and he hasn’t seen it, it can confuse him. That’s what we hung our hat on, just give him a bunch of different looks. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.