Carson Palmer got a little case of the nerves against Green Bay, or so says Bruce Arians, and looked out of sorts at times. Palmer ultimately found success downfield (349 yards passing at 8.5 YPA) and had a few really brilliant throws, including three touchdown passes, but he missed guys downfield a couple times too, and threw two interceptions -- one in the end zone, another on a deep shot. He really got away with a few others that should've been picked as well. The Packers defense gave Palmer some issues, and things aren't going to get any easier this week against Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly and Carolina's crew.
In addition to some of the strategies that I outlined last week that the Cardinals can use to attack downfield -- Arians has said they'll be less conservative this week -- I think they will have to continue to rely on a few quicker and shorter passing concepts that worked against the Packers, and implement them this week against the Panthers in order to move the ball.
Get David Johnson involved in the pass game
I realize I'm not exactly breaking new ground in saying that the Cardinals should get David Johnson involved in the passing game, but after seeing some results from last week, it makes sense for them to make it a focal point again. Johnson was second on the team in targets (nine) against the Packers and caught six passes for 43 yards. He was a great outlet for Palmer, who was under pressure all day, and considering what the Panthers did to the Seahawks offensive line last week, I'm guessing Arizona could struggle to protect Palmer this Sunday.
So, Johnson becomes valuable. Here are a few ways he was used last week.
1. Scat protection
Scat protection is a designed five-man protection scheme and it's used against the blitz as a way to get the ball out of the quarterback's hand quickly. Watch as Johnson releases left into the flats even as the Packers blitz with six defenders. It's a perfect outlet for Palmer, who immediately knows that Johnson is his quick throw.
The Panthers don't blitz a ton, but when they do, expect Arizona to try to use Johnson as a quick outlet at times, as shown above. He's a smooth runner, has soft hands and can make people miss in the open field.
2. Flat route
Here, Johnson just releases downfield and cuts horizontally to give Palmer a dump off option. This is a simple concept that gives the quarterback someone underneath the linebackers if pressure is coming.
Palmer will have to be careful here and throw accurately, because Luke Kuechly got a pick-six when Russell Wilson tried to do this same thing to Marshawn Lynch last week.
3. Flair route
This is pretty much the same route as the scat protection play above, but comes against a normal four-man rush. Johnson's speed will be an interesting matchup for the Panthers linebackers and safeties, all of whom have good speed and tackling prowess. The Panthers don't have many holes, but at least this makes them work the entire field.
Carolina asks a lot of their linebackers in coverage, so it will be interesting to see if Johnson is a natural outlet in the flats when the Panthers drop back into their zones.
4. The v-route
I really like this route, and Johnson is good for it because of his raw athleticism and size. It's a simple hooking route, where the idea is to get the defender to widen out in coverage before slanting back inside for the pass.
One cool thing about this concept is that the Cardinals could also run Johnson on option routes here, so if the defender gets too far inside anticipating a slant, or if the zone has inside leverage here, he could break it to the outside.
At the end of the day, you can really run Johnson out of the backfield on a multitude of routes, and maybe throw in a screen play or two as well. Carolina is disciplined and sound, but they can't cover the entire field all the time (no defense can), and I have the feeling that with Arizona trying to stretch things vertically again, as they always do, there may be some room underneath in which to operate.
Work Larry Fitzgerald in the slot
Josh Norman is an elite cornerback and earned his All-Pro honors this year, but he can't matchup with Michael Floyd, John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald all at the same time. With Fitzgerald doing so much work in the slot this year, that matchup with Cortland Finnegan or whoever works in as the slot cornerback for the Panthers this week could be one to watch. I think regardless of how they defend him, Fitzgerald is going to be a big factor in this game, simply because there are few players as physical with as strong of hands as Fitz.
Here are a couple ways that the Cardinals used Fitzgerald from the slot last week that I think could play well against the Panthers.
1. The post from the slot
This big catch is all about play action. Watch how the Cardinals sell their run fake by pulling an offensive lineman from right to left. That's a huge key for the linebackers behind the line, and they all bite on it and move up to stop what looks to be an impending run.
This allows Fitzgerald to get out of his break and downfield behind middle linebacker Clay Matthews, which opens up the passing lane for Palmer.
Very cool play design, and one that would attack one of the best players in the NFL in Kuechly. Not sure they'll really set out to do this on Sunday, but Bruce Arians is just ballsy enough to do that.
2. The quick out
Again, with the amount of weapons that Arizona has on offense, it will be a little bit of "pick your poison" in defending the pass for Carolina. In this game, I think they'll look to first take away deep passing attempts, so underneath stuff and quick passes will be options that the Cardinals can lean on.
Fitzgerald is a very strong route runner and isn't easy to bring down in the open field when he does catch the ball, so quick route combinations like the one below could work well.
The Packers try to switch on this play, indicating it's a zone -- but it would work against man-to-man defense as well. Either way, Fitz is getting the ball outside where he can do his YAC thing.
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Ultimately, the Panthers have few holes on defense, but Arizona's strength is that they use the entire field in their passing attack. Deep, shallow, wide and down the middle -- they will attack all levels and that just means that Carolina has more space to protect. Getting Johnson and Fitzgerald involved underneath while continuing to look downfield for John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson is something that I think Arians will look to do. It makes things harder for Carolina, alleviates some of the pass protection issues that I think Arizona will have, and even acts as a de facto replacement for a run game that may struggle to gain any footing.
Additionally, if Palmer is still feeling jitters next week, using these types of plays can help a quarterback get more comfortable and get into a rhythm.