Camp Confidential: Arizona Cardinals

August, 2, 2013
8/02/13
11:21
AM ET
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Carson Palmer's relationship with his new head coach, Bruce Arians, is unlike any the Arizona Cardinals quarterback has experienced in 10 NFL seasons or even in college under Pete Carroll at USC -- except for a nine-start period in 2011.

That 2011 season under Hue Jackson in Oakland was the only other time Palmer played for an offensive-minded head coach. In nine starts, Palmer posted a higher Total QBR score (64.8) than four of the seven quarterbacks accorded Pro Bowl honors.

Coincidence? Palmer, a week into his first training camp with Arizona, doesn't think so. He has played under Carroll, Marvin Lewis and Dennis Allen, all defensive coordinators before they became head coaches.

"There are so many defensive head coaches," Palmer said. "I had Hue for nine games. It was great. We lit it up on offense. We just didn't win."

Plenty of successful quarterbacks have played for defensive-minded head coaches, of course, but at this stage of his career, the 33-year-old Palmer wants to clear away all potential impediments to success. He wants his head coach to see the game the way he sees it, as a quarterback. Arians played the position at Virginia Tech.

"[Arians] is not sitting in the film room and saying my five-step drop was too shallow here or too deep there," Palmer said. "He's all about eyes and where the ball is coming out. That is the first time I've had that. To see it through his eyes and see what he expects and see what he thinks is something that takes time to get used to. It's phenomenal for me."

Palmer has much to prove. The metrics say he's been below average in recent seasons. The win-loss record says he's been worse. The Cardinals' quarterbacks over the past three seasons set the bar low enough for Palmer to clear it, but by how much?

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeTodd Bowles
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCan new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles keep the Cardinals defense operating at the same high level as last season?
1. Life without Ray Horton. The Cardinals ranked third in defensive EPA with Horton as coordinator last season. Arians beat out Horton for the head coaching job and cast off Horton in favor of his own coordinator, Todd Bowles. The switch was a clear downgrade on paper, but you'd never know it after a trip inside the Cardinals' locker room.

"Everybody is excited about this defense," nose tackle David Carter said. "Last year, everybody was like, 'I don't like the defense, but I'm going to play it because I have to.' Now, it's like, 'Hey, you want me to do what? OK, sure, I'll do that!' "

According to Carter, Horton was trying to replicate the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-4 scheme in the absence of the proper personnel. He sees Bowles tailoring the defense to fit the Cardinals' personnel, which is better suited for attacking up the field.

"We don't have the type of personnel to hold up and mirror technique and two-gap," Carter said.

The Cardinals have continued to add players who appear best suited for a 4-3 scheme. It's increasingly clear the 3-4 and 4-3 labels can be a hindrance to understanding how teams play defense. Teams don't necessarily commit 100 percent to the traditional core principles of either scheme.

2. Arians' vertical passing game. Conventional wisdom says Arians' preference for the deep passing game will expose an immobile quarterback to excessive punishment behind a questionable offensive line. That could happen, and no one would need an explanation.

Let's also acknowledge the role quarterbacks play in sack avoidance.

Consider Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He took sacks on 8.8 percent of drop-backs over the three seasons before Arians became his coordinator. The rate was 8.5 percent for Roethlisberger over four seasons with Arians running the offense.

Palmer's career sack rate was 4.7 percent with Cincinnati and 4.6 percent with Oakland. In 2012, he took 26 sacks in 591 drop-backs playing behind a Raiders line that wasn't necessarily more talented than the one Palmer has in Arizona this season.

And if Palmer takes a few extra hits while looking for Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd well down the field?

"That is my game," Palmer said. "My strength isn't making a guy miss and getting out and running for a first down on third-and-12. The strength of my game is, I'm 245 pounds, I absorb hits, I'll stay in the pocket and hold it to the very last second for a guy to come out on a certain concept -- not taking a sack, but holding onto the ball and waiting for the guy to get open to get that completion."

3. Who starts on the offensive line? First-round draft choice Jonathan Cooper will be the left guard. Lyle Sendlein will be the center. For the first time in a while, the Cardinals could have multiple decent options elsewhere on the line. The key word is decent, not great.

Levi Brown and Daryn Colledge must play well to justify their high salaries. That could be tough for Colledge, who is battling a nerve problem in his leg. The Cardinals need both veterans, but their longer-term futures are cloudy at best. It's clear that Arizona wants to keep adding youth to the line, which was badly neglected over the previous five drafts. Right now, neither is assured a starting spot.

The two young tackles from last season, Nate Potter and Bobby Massie, provide experienced young depth at worst. One or both could wind up starting.

Arizona does not list an offensive line coach, but three assistants are coaching the position, including coordinator Harold Goodwin. I think the line is getting more thorough coaching under the current setup than when Russ Grimm had been the line coach. Grimm's a Hall of Famer and he built a reputation as a top line coach, but the results simply weren't there in Arizona.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Palmer represents a three-victory improvement over his immediate predecessors if he plays the way he played for Oakland last season. The rest of the team should respond favorably to an upgrade at the most important position. The offensive line is healthier and deeper than it was a year ago. First-year general manager Steve Keim has brought a more proactive approach to personnel. The Cardinals have made themselves better throughout the roster as a result.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The current NFC West is no place to attempt a rebuilding project. Even if some defensive players didn't like the previous scheme, there's no denying the results. Arizona's defense ranked among the NFL's top five in interception rate, third-down conversion rate, red zone efficiency, Total QBR, passing yards, sack rate and first downs. Bowles' Philadelphia Eagles ranked a respective 32nd, 32nd, 27th, 32nd, 14th, fourth and 22nd in those categories during his run as coordinator from Week 7 through season's end. Also, Bowles won't have inside linebacker Daryl Washington for the first four games because of his suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
    AP Photo/Rick ScuteriCoach Bruce Arians wants more "explosive" plays from Michael Floyd and the Cardinals offense.
    The emphasis on big plays is obvious in practice. Palmer frequently pushes the ball deep to Fitzgerald and Floyd. Arians has told players he wants six to eight explosive plays per game. He defines explosive plays as passes covering at least 25 yards and rushes covering at least 15 yards. Arizona tied for the league low with 32 drives featuring at least one play fitting Arians' explosive profile, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The league average was 45 such drives, and San Francisco was two off the league high with 58, while Seattle had 45 and St. Louis had 35. Arians' Indianapolis Colts had 46. His Steelers ranked 11th with 230 such drives from 2007 through 2011, when Arians was coordinator.
  • Floyd opened camp by catching all three of the "50-50" passes Palmer threw his way. Palmer defines those throws loosely as jump balls into coverage, passes in which the receiver and defender should, in theory, have an equal chance at the ball.
  • Arians wants a physical camp when the team is in pads. He had every non-specialist, non-quarterback and uninjured player on the team, including Fitzgerald, engaged in what amounted to close-quarters combat on the team's first day in pads.
  • Rob Housler, who led NFC West tight ends in receptions last season, is the player Fitzgerald points to as among the most impressive in camp to this point. Fitz: "I know you have seen the Jimmy Grahams and Antonio Gateses and Vernon Davises and these tight ends who can do receiver-type angles, routes, things like that. [Housler] is turning into that type of guy. He has 4.4 speed, he can run with the best of them and he's improving in his blocking. He is coming into his own. That is exciting. To have a tight end that can do that is going to open up other things."
  • Rookie Earl Watford, a fourth-round draft choice, struggled getting into position in one-on-one pass-rush drills on the one day early in camp when I charted every rep.
  • Cornerback Patrick Peterson has already been to the Pro Bowl as a returner and as a cornerback. His timing and spacing in coverage has improved, allowing Peterson to better challenge routes. Watching Peterson work at receiver in camp, I don't see how Arians will resist using him on offense to some degree. Peterson appeared more natural in his route-running than some of the young receivers. I was standing with Keim, the GM, when Peterson thrilled the crowd with a reception in practice. Keim: "He is so natural. Watch him running routes, particularly stops and digs. You watch him drop his weight at 219 and accelerate out of the break, that's not what cornerbacks do. He can come out here and just run a route and you're just like, 'He looks like Percy Harvin running a route. How does he do that?' "
  • The newly acquired John Abraham worked with the second team and was trouble for the offense. He was moving through the backfield so quickly on one play that he collided with defensive lineman Matt Shaughnessy, who was rushing from the other side. Abraham signed a two-year deal with a $2.325 million average.
  • Rookie second-round choice Kevin Minter is going to deliver big hits on special teams, it appears. He "decleated" fellow backup linebacker Zack Nash during one punt return.
  • Fifty-one of the 90 players in camp weren't with the Cardinals at any point last season. Arizona focused on signing younger veteran players to one-year deals during what amounts to a transition year. The team signed no unwieldy contracts this offseason. The turnover means watching practice without a roster printout can be a confusing experience. Defensive end Calais Campbell: "I wish I knew everybody's name. I don't."
  • Bowles' defense requires the safeties to be more vocal in making adjustments based on personnel and formations. Bowles was a safety in the NFL for eight seasons. Rashad Johnson: "In the past, we more likely would come out in a call and if we got motion, we would just stay in it. We wouldn't change the coverages or change our look based on that. Now, we do things based off the personnel and based off what guys are giving us."
  • Palmer appears to have a good rapport with Andre Roberts, who figures to factor from the slot. The quarterback compared Roberts to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, his former teammate in Cincinnati, based on body type, route running and football smarts. Palmer: "It's almost like they have played quarterback all the way 'til they got to the NFL. They understand it from your perspective. Andre has that kind of IQ. He just gets it. He sees it, feels it, gets it, he reacts. That is a special trait."
  • The praise in camp for players such as Housler, Floyd and Roberts highlights just how horrible the quarterback play was last season. Even Fitzgerald had an off year. The Cardinals need Palmer to get much more from these players.

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