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Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald have connected for eight touchdowns passes this season. (AP)
After a slow start, the Cardinals have really picked up on head coach Bruce Arians’ offensive system, especially Carson Palmer, the team’s fifth starting quarterback since the beginning of last season.
Arians, who won Associated Press honors for NFL Coach of the Year last season after taking over for cancer-stricken coach Chuck Pagano, is a big believer in spread concepts and vertical routes.
In his first of two coaching stints in Indianapolis, Arians learned under former Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, Peyton Manning’s O.C. and a Don Coryell disciple. Arians believes in pushing the ball downfield, looking for the home run whenever possible. His offense blends a mix of screens and quick hits with vertical routes that stretch the defense. Palmer has TD throws of 91 and 75 yards this year. His 91-yarder is the longest this season in the NFL.
With future Hall of Fame wideout Larry Fitzgerald complemented by 2011 first-round pick Michael Floyd and emerging tight end Rob Housler, Arians has the weapons to make his offense succeed around Palmer. Fitzgerald and Floyd will line up all over the place and several of the Cardinals’ plays are a mix of vertical and horizontal routes designed to capitalize on space.
Fitzgerald and Floyd have already totaled 99 receptions for 1,367 yards and 11 touchdowns. Both average more than 12 yards per reception. Housler, a third-year tight end, has 14 receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown in his past three games.
The Eagles are fortunate to get left cornerback Bradley Fletcher back after a two-game absence with a pectoral injury. The team refurbished its cornerback tandem in the offseason to bring in big, physical corners like Fletcher and Cary Williams to combat the league-wide proliferation of physical specimen wideouts.
The duo of Fitzgerald (6-3, 218) and Floyd (6-3, 225) might be the strongest, most athletic one the Eagles confront all season. Fitzgerald in the slot will be a tough assignment for nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who will give up about five inches in the matchup.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis will play man-press with his corners and rely on his front seven to generate pressure against Palmer. This is where the Eagles can really neutralize the Arizona passing game. The Cardinals’ offensive line, an abject disaster last season, is only moderately improved from a year ago. They’re extremely vulnerable on the edges, especially left tackle Bradley Sowell. He gets a lot of help, and he needs it.
Davis has used a variety of pressures to compensate for the lack of an elite pass rusher. He’ll send five and six men at Palmer, who’s prone to turnovers. Although he’s completing 63 percent of his passes this year and more than 70 percent in three of his past four games, Palmer’s 15 interceptions are tied for third-most in the league. He’s also among the league’s most-sacked quarterbacks, going down three or more times in six games.
Trent Cole, who has three sacks in his last three games, needs to be a factor in the pass rush. After going his first eight games without a sack, Cole has made an adjustment in his pass rush to counter quarterbacks stepping up quickly to avoid him. He’s not just racing around the edge on every rush. Also look for Brandon Graham to play a bigger role going forward. Word is, he's been removed from two phases of special teams to play more of a prominent role on defense.
With just an adequate running game consisting of Rashard Mendenhall (3.0 yards per carry) and Andre Ellington, the Eagles can make Arizona one-dimensional and try to win the game with its pass rush. The Cards are 1-2 this year when they lose the turnover battle. Even in a 40-11 trouncing of the Colts last Sunday, Palmer had nearly a handful of rushed passes intercepted.
Mendenhall, a former Steelers first-round pick, isn’t the same running back anymore. He’s slower and is victimized by an offensive line that doesn’t open many holes for him. Ellington is much quicker and doesn’t need a lot of space to create. Still, the Cards have one of the league’s worst rushing offenses. They run a lot of power stretches and counters, trying to get some movement up front to clear a path.
They’ll use two or three tight ends in the running game on first and second down, but they lack a real home-run hitter in the offensive backfield and the offensive line should get punished by the trio of Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan. The Cards have some gadgets in the playbook that get the ball into the hands of playmaking corner Patrick Peterson on end-arounds and screens.
The Cards have won four straight and scored at least 27 points in all four, but three of their victims -- the Falcons, Texans, Jaguars -- currently have 2-9 records. The Eagles should be much more competitive.