Sunday Night Football at Century Link Field against the Legion of Boom. For most teams, that combination spells immediate disaster. But for Carson Palmer and his now 7-2 Arizona Cardinals, the high-profile NFC West matchup was fragrant with opportunity.
Offensively, the 2015 Cardinals have been a behemoth. They are second in the NFL in points scored and first overall in total yards, according to Pro Football Reference. Palmer has been the catalyst. His 23 touchdown passes rank second only to Tom Brady, and his quarterback rating of 108 is good enough for third in the league.
Those stats are especially crazy when you consider that Palmer spent his off-season rehabbing from a torn ACL, the second of his career. STACK covered Palmer’s recovery in depth, watching as his brother Jordan spent countless hours helping him relearn and perfect the movements a pocket passer needs to be successful. One major point of emphasis was having Palmer “tie his eyes to his feet,” meaning no matter where the rush was coming from or where he had to move inside or outside the pocket, he always had to stay balanced and ready to throw from the proper position. Sunday night against Seattle, Palmer’s work in that area was on full display.
The Seahawks blitzed Palmer relentlessly, causing him to fumble twice, including one that was returned for a touchdown. But there were plenty of other instances where Palmer could have been strip-sacked, but bought himself some time by moving up in the pocket or simply evading the rush with his feet.
“[Carson] did a really good job of ripping through when he was in the pocket,” Jordan told us over the phone from Seattle, where he was in the stands to cheer on his brother’s performance in person. “One of the things that we work on is conflict climb, when you’re climbing the pocket because you’re getting pressure from outside. I always say ‘Defender, body, ball.’ So the defender is in one place, and your body is between the defender and the ball. He did a good job of ripping through and getting right back on to his platform and being ready to throw.”
One play in particular that confirmed the truth of Jordan’s words in action was a 42-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Floyd early in the second quarter, which can be seen above. Palmer initially has a clean pocket until Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennet beats his man around the left edge and quickly bears down on him. Palmer sees Bennett, takes a couple of shuffle steps forward to buy himself more time, and launches a perfect pass to Floyd down the right sideline for a huge gain.
“When you were in middle school and playing touch football with your friends, if I gave you seven alligators, or I only gave you five alligators, you’d take seven,” Jordan said. “In the NFL, if you can buy yourself a fraction of an alligator, you have an advantage. What we tried to do this off-season was try and get as many alligators as we could. An alligator might not mean breaking a tackle and buying yourself three seconds. It might just mean being able to make a subtle movement and still be in a throwing position to get the ball out accurately.”
Palmer bought himself a lot of alligators Sunday night. In the play above, he escapes the rush coming from his right edge, moves up in the pocket and throws an accurate bullet to Larry Fitzgerald on the move, a play that resulted in a 15-yard gain and a big first down.
Then again, this time in the fourth quarter, Palmer evades the rush by moving to his left, keeps his shoulders and feet squared at his target and hits Floyd for another first down.
“When you’re under duress like that, if you’re really fast like Russell Wilson, you can get out of the pocket and go run,” Jordan said. “If you’re Carson, and you’re extremely accurate from the pocket, then it’s just about how do I buy myself another alligator.”
What impressed Jordan the most, aside from Carson’s mechanics, was his brother’s resiliency. The Cardinals took a 22-7 lead into halftime only to see it evaporate by the fourth quarter. The Seahawks went up 29-25 on the aforementioned strip-sack and return of a Palmer fumble, and things looked bleak for a Cardinals offense that had only mustered three points in the second half. To make matters worse, Floyd dropped a bomb from Palmer in the third quarter, which, if he had caught it, would have probably gone for a touchdown. Still, with 13 minutes left in the fourth, Palmer orchestrated a magnificient drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Grisham that put the Cardinals ahead again, this time for good.
“What’s on display more than anything this year is his resiliency,” Jordan said. “When you have those plays, when they strip you and they score points, it’s really difficult to come back. When you finally dial one up and you make a perfect throw and it doesn’t convert, especially against that defense, it’s so much wind coming out of your sails. To come back from that, it’s something I’ve seen him do for a long time, but it’s just on a national stage now.”
In all, it was one of the biggest wins of Palmer’s career. The usually reserved quarterback showed some serious emotion on the sideline after that defining touchdown.
“He really likes to beat that team. He’s having fun,” Jordan said. “Carson handled adversity really well last night.”
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