TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals’ vertical passing attack has produced more misses than hits thus far in 2016.
Through the season’s first five games, quarterbacks and the skilled position players have connected on 19 pass plays of 20 or more yards.
The Cardinals refer to those plays as “explosive.” They had 65 such plays a year ago, the third-most in the NFL.
The reasons for so many misfires are threefold: dropped passes, underthrown pass attempts and opposing pass defenses, though head coach Bruce Arians seemed to dismiss the latter when it was brought up earlier in the week.
The idea that defenses are taking away the Cardinals’ home run shots has become a common refrain in recent weeks. Safeties are playing deeper, it’s been suggested, forcing Carson Palmer, or Drew Stanton last week, to look for the shorter and underneath routes.
Arians doesn’t see it that way.
“We just ain’t hitting them,” he said.
What Arians does see are receivers dropping passes and quarterbacks underthrowing their targets.
“We’ve left a lot of yards out there underthrowing, throwing 50-50 balls, instead of just shooting them on up the field,” he said.
“There have been some that I’ve underthrown. There’s been some that they just played coverage and they were basically long throwaways. So, there’s been a mix of reasons,” Palmer said. “We always love to take those shots. If they’re there, we’ll take them. If they’re not, we won’t take them. But, got to continue to improve on it and get better.”
Of the Cardinals’ 19 explosive plays, six came against Tampa Bay in Week 2, including the offense’s longest scoring play of the season, Palmer’s 51-yard touchdown throw to Jaron Brown.
The cure for what’s been ailing their deep-ball threat may be arriving this Monday in the form of the New York Jets defense, which has allowed passing plays of 20 or more yards 19 times, including six scoring plays.
“It just happens. Sometimes they come in bunches,” Jets head coach Todd Bowles said during a conference call with Arizona reporters. “We’re doing everything we can to get them down. Obviously, it’s not something we want to happen, but they’ve happened and we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve cut down the volume last game, even though (the Steelers) got a big one there (with a 72-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Sammie Coates). We’ve just got to keep working at it.”
Overall, the Jets passing defense ranks 31st, allowing 303 yards per game. Only Oakland (330.6 yards) surrenders more.
Worse yet, when facing the Jets defense, opposing quarterbacks own a 118.6 passer rating, that’s the highest in the league.
“It’s been a missed tackle here or there. It’s been miscommunication. It’s been the guy made an unbelievable catch. A guy made a great move after the catch,” Palmer said, after reviewing the Jets film. “It’s not one thing where you’re going to say, ‘OK, we’re going to exploit that.’”
The Cardinals’ vertical passing game would also greatly benefit from an appearance from Michael Floyd.
Targeted 34 times, Floyd, now in his fifth season, has caught just 12 balls for 170 yards. His two touchdown receptions are second-most on the team, yet his other numbers trail three different players; certainly not what was expected in what is a contract year.
“Mike’s fine. We saw what he was able to do last year at the end of the season,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, referring to Floyd’s five 100-yard efforts in his final eight games. “It just takes one big play to spark him and get him going. I think the most important thing as a teammate is to continue to remind him how talented he is and how good he is and how much he means to our offense. When Mike is playing at high level—when Mike has a hundred yards, I don’t know what our record is (it’s 9-2), but we’re pretty damn good when he’s playing at a high level, so getting him going and getting him playing the way he’s capable of playing is a big emphasis for us and we’re going to continue to feed him and have confidence in him.”
Arians, too, has expressed confidence in Floyd, who did not have a catch last week against San Francisco.
“Just keep throwing at him. We’re fortunate we have five really good guys. J.J’s (Nelson) healthy and he’ll have his role and Mike’s got his role and Jaron’s got his role. It’s just a matter of catch the damn ball. You’ve caught it your whole life. It’s not that hard. Don’t worry about it,” Arians said. “You just got to get mentally tough. It’s just like lining up for a four-foot putt. You miss five of them, you don’t feel really good about the next one but you got to make it.”