5 things you have to know about the Cardinals: Arizona looks to take next step toward greatness in 2016

September 05, 2016 - 8:24 am
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[caption id="attachment_110888" align="alignright" width="350"]Arizona's Carson Palmer is at the controls of one of the best offenses in the NFC. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) Carson Palmer led the Cardinals to the NFC title game last season. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)[/caption] Five things you have to know about the Cardinals, who will host the Patriots in the regular-season opener for both teams Sunday night in Arizona. 1. When everyone is healthy, their passing game is really deep. The Cardinals were one of just two teams last season to have three players finish the year with 800 or more receiving yards (New Orleans was the other). According to Football Outsiders, for eight straight years Arizona has ranked either first or second in the league in the percentage of plays with four or more wide receivers. Bottom line? Carson Palmer is going to test the depth of the New England secondary right out of the gate. Palmer was in the top five of most major passing categories last year, including total passing yards (4,671, fourth), touchdowns (35, tied for second), yards per game (292, fifth) and passer rating (104.6, third). He's a big, strong pocket presence. "Carson's definitely willing to stand in there and deliver the ball under pressure and wait until the last second to get rid of it," Bill Belichick said of the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Palmer on Monday. "He's a big, strong guy. He's big for a quarterback and has a good frame. I'm not saying any quarterback wants to get hit a lot, but there's some guys that can absorb more of those than others. He's not as big as (Ben) Roethlisberger, but he's a big quarterback." Everyone knows about the greatness of Larry Fitzgerald, and the undoubted first-ballot Hall of Famer still is Arizona's first option in the passing game. He's coming off one of the finest years of his career (career-best 109 catches for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns) and undoubtedly will face Malcolm Butler for much of the evening. John Brown and Michael Floyd are as good as there is as No. 2 and 3 options. Brown is a 5-foot-11, 195-pound scooter who had 65 catches for 1,003 yards seven touchdowns last year, while Floyd's size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) makes him an intriguing target for Palmer. He had 52 catches for 849 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. The backs also are utilized as part of the passing game, with David Johnson working as a multidimensional threat. The 6-foot-1, 224-pounder had a dynamite rookie campaign in 2015, finishing with 36 catches for 457 yards and four touchdowns in the passing game. 2. Speaking of David Johnson, he'll be one of the best multidimensional running backs the Patriots will face this season. As we've already said, Johnson was the best option out of the backfield for one of the best passing teams in the league last year, but he also can bring it when it comes to running the ball, with 125 carries for 581 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns. He was second on the team to Chris Johnson, who ended up with 196 carries for 814 yards and three touchdowns, but if the preseason is any indication, David is likely to get more carries than Chris in 2016. "He's really good at all of it," Belichick said of the second-year back. "A bigger back that has good speed, good passing game skills [and is] good in blitz pickup. He's a strong runner and can get some tough yards. "Really, he does an excellent job for them on all four downs," Belchick added. "It's a combination of his size, his playing speed, his quickness. He's got good run vision. He's a smart kid. So, he's done a great job for them." As a team, the Cardinals are better at passing the ball than running it, but it is worth mentioning that when it comes to simple ball control and the four-minute offense, Arizona still is pretty good. According to Football Outsiders, the Cardinals were second best in time of possession last year at an average of 32:04 per game. It's tough to come from behind against them. 3. Despite the addition of Chandler Jones, the strength of the Arizona defense is the secondary. Some of it depends on whether or not you view Deone Bucannon as a linebacker or a safety — for our purposes here, we'll view him as an oversized safety — but there's no denying the fact that the group of Bucannon, safety Tyrann Mathieu (five picks in 2015) and cornerback Patrick Peterson (a three-time first-team All-Pro who had two interceptions last year) help make up one of the most talented secondaries in the league. It was no surprise that, in this pass-first era, Arizona leaned on its strengths and used more dime packages than any other defense (according to Football Outsiders). The Cardinals were in the top 10 in just about every defensive pass metric out there, and provided they can steer clear of a serious injury, they should be capable of doing the same in 2016. Frankly, the Cardinals are one of only a few teams capable of having enough depth on pass defense to run with New England's skill position players. Looking at matchups for Sunday night, it could very well be a combination of Bucannon on Rob Gronkowski, and Peterson on Julian Edelman, and the rest would be something of a toss-up. It will be interesting to see how Jones responds against his ex-mates. Mathieu and some of his new pals think he's capable of finishing the year with 20 sacks, and depending on where he lines up along Arizona's defensive front, he could get off to a good start. 4. Arizona's special teams are middle-of-the-road at best. This is an area where the Patriots should have a decided advantage. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro is pretty shaky -- he missed five extra points last season and only has two makes of 50 yards or better. Punter Drew Butler was one of the worst in the league last season with a net average of just 35.4 yards per punt while dropping just 22 of his 60 punt attempts inside the opposing 20-yard line. David Johnson's emergence as an every-down back means his special teams skills will be put on the back burner for now, while Peterson's electric work as a punt returner his rookie year (when he returned four for touchdowns) is a distant memory, as the coaches likely will have them focus on their primary line of work for now. Preseason saw mostly running back Andre Ellington on kick returns and receiver J.J. Nelson on punt return work, but it'll certainly be something worth watching Sunday night. 5. No one benefits more from opposing penalties than the Cardinals. According to Football Outsiders, no team benefited more from opposing penalties the last three seasons than the Cardinals. Last year, Arizona's opponents committed a league-high 151 penalties worth 1,202 yards. Overall, the Cardinals have ranked in the top five for opponent penalties for three straight seasons, and also led the league in opponent penalty yards in 2014.