Why It’s Too Early to Count Out the Arizona Cardinals

Sitting at 1-3 ahead of tonight’s game against the 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals have been perhaps the most disappointing team in football this season. Despite high expectations, back to back losses to the uninspiring Bills and Rams show that this team has not been what they were widely expected to be. Currently, ESPN gives them only a 19.9% chance to make the playoffs after they were seen as a Super Bowl favorite heading into the season (http://www.espn.com/nfl/insider/story/_/id/17714165/playoff-odds-predictions-all-32-nfl-teams-2016-nfl-playoffs). However, it’s still far too early to write them off as true contenders since their talent level is second to none and their immediate schedule is very forgiving.

On offense, the Cardinals’ weapons are a problem for any opposing defense. This starts with David Johnson, a dying breed as one of the game’s last true three-down running backs. As a runner, Johnson’s 4.7 YPC ranks 6th among RBs with at least 40 carries. But unlike many other prolific pass-catching RBs, Johnson is a bruising runner that wears down defenses. Using his 6’1 225lb frame, he has accumulated an impressive 5.8 YPC in the second half of games. As a receiver, Johnson ranks first among RBs in receiving yards at 210 (putting him on pace for a whopping 840) and third in yards per catch (15.0) among those with at least 10 catches. At WR, the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd combined for over 3000 yards in 2015. While Floyd has failed to live up to expectations thus far in 2016 (on pace for fewer than 700 yards with a ghastly 37.5% catch rate), Fitzgerald ranks 6th in the league with 25 catches and Brown has come to life after a slow start with 16 catches for 214 yards in the last two weeks. Yet, whether this offense reaches its full potential will almost certainly depend on the health and effectiveness of Carson Palmer. Currently slated to miss tonight’s game with a concussion, Palmer is completing less than 59% of his passes with 7.5 YPA, 6 TDs and 5 INTs through four games in 2016. Those numbers are a far cry from what he did last season, when he paced all qualified QBs with 8.7 YPA and finished with 35 TDs to only 11 INTs. While he’s getting up there in age (36), Palmer has shown that he’s capable of putting up elite numbers and a return to health should get him headed in the right direction. As a whole, the Cardinals are still 7th in total offense this season despite everything that can be improved, showing just how talented they are and how their offense could fuel a potential turnaround.

On defense, the Cardinals have quality talent at every level. Their defensive line is anchored by Calais Campbell, who has made the last two pro bowls while asserting himself as one of the league’s best 3-4 defensive ends. He has yet to record a sack this year after averaging seven per season in his last three seasons, but he’s still making his presence felt by getting consistent pressure and playing the run. On the edge, Chandler Jones has filled one of their big holes from last season by providing a consistent outside pass rush. He’s had one sack in every game he’s played this season, putting him on pace for a strong 16 on the year. His presence has also taken pressure off of Markus Golden on the other side, who remarkably also has one sack in every game so far, giving Arizona a formidable duo on the edge. Deone Bucannon gives them a unique weapon for them at “money backer,” a hybrid safety/linebacker position that allows him to use his speed and playmaking instincts in the box despite weighing only 210 lbs. He’s on pace for 80 combined tackles this year after leading the team with 112 in 2015, and has played an integral role in coverage on a defense that has allowed only 14 catches to tight ends so far. However, despite all of the talent in the defense’s front seven, its two best players play in the secondary. Patrick Peterson is as good as any cornerback in the game today, as his unmatched coverage skills and athleticism allow him to shadow a team’s #1 WR all over the field. He already has 2 INTs this year to match his total from 2015 despite the fact that opposing teams often look to throw away from him. Tyrann Mathieu only has 15 tackles and has yet to record an INT this year as he recovers from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season, but there’s no denying his impact when he’s healthy. He was firmly in the running for Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 when he put up 89 tackles, 5 INTs, and a sack in 14 games before his injury while playing mainly slot corner but also seeing snaps at both safety spots and outside corner. Additionally, while his injury has mostly kept Mathieu at safety this season, Tyvon Branch (the incumbent slot corner) got injured last week against the Rams, opening up the door for Mathieu to see more snaps at his best position as his health continues to improve. If you needed more evidence of how good Mathieu and Peterson are, both of them were named to the 2015 All Pro Team and were graded as Top 20 players by Pro Football Focus (http://www.revengeofthebirds.com/2016/5/13/11669998/tyrann-mathieu-carson-palmer-patrick-peterson-all-make-pff-top-20). As a whole, the Cardinals rank 8th in total defense, which could be better given their talent but is still more than good enough to play a key role in a potential turnaround.

Yet, at 1-3, the Cardinals have undeniably dug themselves a hole that isn’t easy to climb out of. Although they will be on the road and without Palmer, tonight’s game is very winnable against a weak 49ers team that currently ranks 30th in total offense and 26th in total defense. They should also beat the Jets next week with or without Palmer, as Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown a miserable 9 INTs in his last two games to propel the Jets to two ugly losses. At 3-3, the Cardinals would be in much better position to take on teams like the Seahawks, Panthers, and Vikings in the subsequent weeks. However, this is obviously still no lock: they need to execute in order to get to this point and crawl back into contention. But with one of the best coaches in the NFL in Bruce Arians and arguably the most talented roster in the league, the opportunity is there.

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