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Cardinals finding it difficult to get big plays down the field

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson (22) intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown (12) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Much has been made over the last few years of the Arizona Cardinals’ and head coach Bruce Arians’ “no risk-it, no biscuit” approach.

But perhaps what’s even more important to his philosophy in guiding an offense is how he likes to stretch the field, throwing the ball deep and earning what are referred to as “chunk plays.”

Last season, when the Cardinals ranked first in the NFL in total offense, they posted 66 plays of more than 20 yards and 15 of at least 40 yards, numbers that ranked third in the NFL.

Through four games this season, as the Cardinals have sputtered to a 1-3 record, the offense is ranked seventh in the NFL, but the big plays have been lacking.

According to Pro Football Focus, Cardinals QB Carson Palmer has attempted 23 passes of 20 or more yards, completing eight for 228 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions. Backup Drew Stanton, who will be starting in place of Palmer Thursday against the 49ers, has attempted two such throws, connecting on neither with one being picked off.

Last season, according to PFF, Palmer completed 33-of-85 deep passes for 1,074 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions.

There is a 10-point difference in the completion percentage for Palmer, and when he is cleared from his concussion and returns to the field, the numbers could very easily balance out as the games progress. But for now, Arizona’s offense is not in drive nor is it in park. It’s in neutral, which is how defenses want it.

“Teams, if you look at us, the one thing you want to take away from us is our big shots,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “Any logical defensive coordinator would see that we like our chunk plays.”

Fitzgerald said when the opportunities arise for a big play the Cardinals must take advantage of them, because that’s who they are. They aren’t getting many chances.

“Teams are going to try to make us sustain drives and make us play six, seven, eight, nine, 10 plays to be able to put points on the board,” he added. “We can play that kind of ball, too.”

Of the Cardinals’ 10 touchdown drives this season, seven required at least seven plays, with a high of 17 needed to punch one in against the Bills.

“Teams just do a great job of game-planning and they’re just protecting everything deep,” receiver John Brown said. “So it’s like, it’s kind of hard. We’re going to have to fight faster to try to get past them.”

There are few secrets in the NFL.

“I just think a lot of teams, they know our past,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “We like to take shots and they’re trying to eliminate them.”

Goodwin said the way to counteract that is to run the ball well, which the team has this season. But when teams play a lot of Cover-2 defense, like the Rams did last Sunday, the deep ball is less likely to be open as safeties are lined up deep.

“But we’ve still got to make plays in the passing game because a lot of things we do are predicated off getting some yardage, as far as chunks. We’ve just got to take it when they’re there. When they’re not there, just check it underneath and play another down. We’ve got to be smart that way and not turn it over.”

And therein lies the challenge.

The Cardinals want to push the ball down the field. They need to push the ball down the field. But the farther the ball travels, the more likely it is to be intercepted. There is a balance between the risk and reward that a quarterback must manage, and the Cardinals’ starter, Carson Palmer, has a knack for toeing the line. Sometimes it works out, and he posts gaudy numbers and leads the team to a win.

Other times it does not, and his stats — like the ones he put up in the team’s 33-18 loss to Buffalo in which he was intercepted four times — look downright bad.

Players and coaches always talk about taking what the defense gives them, but that’s easier said than done when the offense has a certain style it likes to play. Sometimes it might be better to check the ball down than throw a contestable deep ball, though Arians said he does not want to see Palmer dump the ball off more because he feels the issues have nothing to do with the read.

“No,” he said. “The deep ball is there, just throw it a little bit further.”

Yet while the issue may be more with the location of the throw than the receiver it was to, common sense would tell you that the deeper throws are the most challenging. They are more difficult for the quarterback to be accurate with, and the longer the ball hangs up in the air, the better chance the defender has of making a play on it.

While Arians likes to see his quarterback look down the field, rare is the play where that is the only option. The coach often talks about how there are deep routes, intermediate routes and short routes built into every passing play, so that the QB has options based on what is open. It’s touchdown, first down and check down, he likes to say.

Sometimes, the final option may be the best one.

Fitzgerald said it’s not a challenge to stay patient and sustain drives because they have to keep teams honest.

“You have to be able to make your explosive plays; it’s part of who we are,” he said. “You look around the league, we’re not the only ones doing it. Atlanta is doing a great job of it — a lot of teams are doing a great job with explosive plays, and we have to be one of them.”

The last few years, the Cardinals have excelled in that area. To get back to that level, receiver Jaron Brown says it comes down to, simply, execution.

“Everything’s got to go right,” he said. “It takes a lot — from the line, from the receiver getting the right depth, the quarterback and all that. When all those three parts come together, that’s when you get those chunk plays.”

Some stories for pre-game reading

• The Cardinals have been getting a good pass rush from Chandler Jones and Markus Golden

• ESPN’s John Clayton says the Cardinals’ playoff chances hinge on the next four games

• Craig Morgan wrote on how the 2016 Cardinals are in danger of being arguably the Valley’s biggest sports flop

• The Cardinals say the offense will not change if Drew Stanton starts in place of Carson Palmer

• With Palmer inactive, Zac Dysert will become the team’s backup QB

• Tyrann Mathieu says he is ready to ‘cut it loose’

• In case you missed it, the Cardinals made a series of roster moves this week

• The Cardinals have gone the wrong direction in the national power rankings

Miscellany

– The Cardinals enter the game 7-3 under Bruce Arians in primetime games.

– With 100 or more yards from scrimmage, David Johnson would become the first Cardinal since MacArthur Lane in 1970 to tally 600+ yards over the season’s first five contests.

– If Tyrann Mathieu intercepts a pass, it would give him a pick in three straight games against San Francisco.

– From 2009 to 2014, the Cardinals were unable to beat the 49ers on the road. With a win Thursday, it would give them two straight road wins in the Bay Area.

– With 100 or more yards receiving John Brown would reach the century mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

– With one sack Thursday Markus Golden would surpass his total from all of 2015.

– Larry Fitzgerald enters the game with 14 career touchdown catches against the 49ers, which is the most any player has ever had against the franchise. His 1,854 receiving yards against San Francisco are the most he has against any opponent.

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