The Arizona Cardinals apparently found a new offensive scheme while demolishing the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Yes, Carson Palmer took some deep shots and was successful in doing so, but running the ball—specifically with rookie Andre Ellington—is the wise thing to do.
Who knew, right?
In all seriousness, this was the best game of the season for the Cardinals to this point, as Ellington and Co. ran it down Atlanta’s throat to the tune of 201 rushing yards.
The Cardinals (4-4) dominated at the point of attack, leading to many big runs from the running backs—Ellington especially.
Meanwhile, the Falcons (2-5) had no answer for anything Arizona did early in the run game. Ellington took a handoff 80 yards to the house on a run play up the middle, initially being stopped before bouncing to the outside and outrunning everyone.
Atlanta forced an early interception of Palmer, but the veteran quarterback responded with a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the next possession, ending when wideout Larry Fitzgerald hauled in a Palmer 10-yard strike for his fifth touchdown of the season.
Here are some takeaways from the big win.
It’s not the first time this season he’s started poorly then rebounded to have a nice game. Palmer did so at San Francisco, when he threw two early interceptions before throwing two touchdowns the rest of the way.
Only that game didn’t end so well for the team.
Through two drives, Palmer completed two of four passes for 23 yards, no touchdowns and an interception that led to a Matt Bryant field goal. But after that point, he completed 11 of 14 (78.6 percent) for 149 yards, two scores and no interceptions for a 150.6 passer rating.
If he can eliminate the one poor throw and do that over a string of four or five games, the Cardinals should be in good shape heading into the final stretch run.
Stepping in for an injured Rashard Mendenhall, who sat because of a toe injury, the rookie carried 15 times for 154 yards (10.3 yards per carry) and a touchdown—an 80-yard scamper that left jaws dropped in this household and likely many others.
Ellington has indeed been freed from his seven-touches-per-game jail cell—and just in time, too.
The offensive line opened plenty of running lanes for backs on Sunday. Had Mendenhall played, the rushing attack would have been stymied simply because the slow, lumbering back does not see holes the way Ellington and even fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor do.
That would have made it difficult on Palmer, as without the threat of the run, Atlanta’s defense could have keyed on dropping more into coverage, potentially shutting down the passing attack.
He was not dominant against the Falcons, but Fitzgerald recorded the necessary four receptions to become the youngest player ever to record 800 receptions in a career. He now has 800 receptions for 10,883 yards and 82 touchdowns, all tops in Cardinals franchise history.
But Fitzgerald was dominant in another area on Sunday: run blocking.
No. 11 provided one of the key blocks that freed Ellington on the 80-yard score. This is nothing new for Fitz, as he’s been providing solid run blocking his entire career. Even Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll took notice last week, sending two plays to the league that he said perfectly illustrated “the new mentality and the right mentality” of blocking in the NFL, according to ESPN.com.
Atlanta’s front seven isn’t exactly Seattle’s, but the offensive line definitely performed better against the Falcons than it did against the Seahawks. Palmer was sacked three times, but he was not under constant pressure this week.
It helped that Palmer dropped back to pass only 22 times, nearly half his 42-per-game average over the first seven games of his Cardinals career.
And that goes back to having a successful rushing attack.
See? Ellington really is best for the offense over Mendenhall. He allows Palmer—in an indirect way—to stay upright throughout the game by not allowing the line to screw the pooch.
Let’s see more of that, please.
Since the start of the 2012 season, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown 21 interceptions, which isn’t bad. What’s insane? An astounding nine of those have come in two games against the Cardinals.
He threw five picks in last year’s miracle win over a quarterback-less Arizona team that would have been better off starting then-safety Kerry Rhodes behind center. He then threw four more Sunday en route to his fourth-worst single-game passer rating of his career (47.2).
Ryan looked flustered at times and was generally not comfortable in the pocket. His success came when the Cardinals blitzed him, as he was quickly able to find open receivers downfield on many occasions.
If Ryan’s Falcons have to face the Cardinals defense anytime between now and the time he retires from football, it will be too soon for him. He probably would just as soon dig a splinter out from underneath his fingernail with a hot spoon.
These guys were so good on Sunday. Atlanta rushed 14 times for 27 yards (1.9 YPC), with the longest run of the day coming from Ryan on a 13-yard fourth-quarter scramble.
The 27 yards is the 11th-fewest any Cardinals defense has allowed since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.
Starting running back Steven Jackson, who is very familiar with Arizona from his time with the St. Louis Rams, carried 11 times for six yards (0.5 YPC). Six yards is tied for the lowest output in his career when carrying at least 10 times. The only other time that happened was in 2005 against—you guessed it—the Cardinals.
Arizona appears to struggle against the younger, more physical running backs (those still residing west of Arizona), but everyone else has done nothing against them.
I highlighted for Revenge of the Birds—in my Friday “3 keys to victory” column—the notion that the Cardinals would lose this game if tight end Tony Gonzalez were to score a touchdown and would win if he did not.
It seems rudimentary and perhaps too easy, but it’s a trend worth noting: When the opposing tight end scores a touchdown against the Cardinals, they lose. And when he does not, they win.
That proved true once more this week, as Arizona held Gonzalez to three receptions for just 26 yards and no touchdowns.
My matchup to watch from the “3 keys” piece was Gonzalez vs. Patrick Peterson. Though Peterson has not covered tight ends much throughout his three NFL seasons, I felt it would be a necessity—one made easier with the absence of Julio Jones and Roddy White from Atlanta’s offense.
It was, and it worked.
Peterson was not stuck on Gonzalez all afternoon, but he did spend considerable time covering the future Hall of Fame tight end and, by my count, shut him out in doing so.
This could be something to watch as the season progresses. Peterson succeeded in covering Gonzalez, and New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib shut out New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham a few weeks ago. We could see teams that have corners big and physical enough put them on the better tight ends of the league.