The Arizona Cardinals practice in the mornings during the week to account for trips to the east coast during the regular season.
Head coach Bruce Arians holds early practices because he wants the Cardinals' body clocks to be adjusted, and Arians figured Arizona's trip to Buffalo this week wouldn't impact his team's play. But on Sunday, the Cardinals hardly looked awake during the first half in a brutal 33-18 loss to the Bills.
The Cardinals dropped to 1-2 on the season after their third consecutive slow start on offense and their second dismal outing on special teams.
1. Carson Palmer's jeopardy throws caught up to him
On three or four occasions in the first half, Cardinals' quarterback Carson Palmer put passes in jeopardy that could have resulted in Arizona turnovers. Earlier in the week, Palmer even acknowledged that Arizona was fortunate to enter Sunday's game plus-seven in the turnover margin, and attributed some of it to randomness.
After escaping unscathed in the turnover column through the first half, Palmer threw four second half interceptions and crushed the Cardinals hopes of a comeback victory with two interceptions at or near the end zone.
Throughout his career, Palmer has been interception prone, and the second half of Sunday's contest against the Bills is starting to prove that 2015 was an outlier in his career. From 2009-2015, Palmer played 16 games in six seasons and threw at least 13 interceptions in five of those seasons. Palmer has thrown at least 16 interceptions five times in his career, and has now logged 170 picks in his career.
Palmer is an above average NFL quarterback from an arm strength and footwork standpoint, but his consistent urge to take down field shots and fit balls into tight windows has the potential to hurt the Cardinals as it did on Sunday. Palmer was disappointing in the playoffs last season, and some of that can be chalked up to a finger injury that impacted his accuracy, but ultimately, much of Palmer's troubles are self-inflicted and come down to poor decision-making.
The Cardinals' offense went three-and-out on its first five drives of the game, and the signal-caller's early struggles left him 1-for-9 at one point in the first half. Palmer was out of sorts throughout Sunday's game, and though he finished 25-for-48 for 256 yards, Palmer's mistakes prevented the Cardinals from having the opportunity to come back.
2. Special teams woes becoming a trend
The Buffalo Bills didn't play well on special teams on Sunday, but that didn't prevent the Cardinals from being completely outplayed in the third phase of the game.
The contest started on an ominous note for Arizona when punter Drew Butler injured his ankle ranging for a bad snap from long snapper Kameron Canaday, and the team's troubles continued from that point on.
With Butler in the game, the Cardinals averaged an anemic 36.5 yards per punt on four punts, and after Butler was relieved of his duties, placekicker Chandler Catanzaro took over. Catanzaro had one average punt, and followed it up with a shank that brought his average on the day to 33 yards, and Arizona's struggles consistently set the Bills up with strong field position.
Kick returner Andre Ellington has made a number of poor choices to bring deep kicks out of the end zone this season, and from the start of training camp on, Arizona has shown no ability to set up a blocking scheme on kick returns. Ellington was hung out to dry twice Sunday, part of which is his own fault, but regardless, Arizona can't afford to have a starting field position inside its own 20-yard line on kickoffs.
The most glaring error came in the second half, as Canaday snapped a ball on a field goal attempt well over the head of Butler, Arizona's holder, that resulted in a return touchdown for the Bills. The game was still within reach at that point for Arizona, but Canaday's botched snap gave the Bills all the momentum they would need to hold on. It would not come as a surprise if Arizona had a different long-snapper next week.
3. Arizona's offensive line regressed
Without starting right guard Evan Mathis who did not travel to Buffalo with the Cardinals' team because of a toe injury, Arizona's offensive line was out of sync against a capable Buffalo rush.
The Bills registered five sacks of Palmer, including 1.5 from Kyle Williams who dominated the trenches against every offensive lineman he lined up against.
With Mathis out, Earl Watford made his third career start for Arizona, and on a critical third down and one play in the second half, Watford and center A.Q. Shipley left a Buffalo defensive tackle completely unblocked and that player stuffed David Johnson for a loss.
That miscue was one of many for Shipley, who along with second-year offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, struggled through his worst performance of the season. On one second half series, Shipley was called for a drive-killing holding penalty, and on the very next play, Palmer called for the snap and Shipley did not get it off before the play clock expired. Fortunately for Shipley, Buffalo called a timeout, but that type of mental error highlighted the struggles he endured against the Bills.
Humphries couldn't handle the speed of Buffalo's edge rushers, and his failure to do so forced Palmer to step up in the pocket and release throws ahead of schedule. On two of Palmer's interceptions, there were miscommunications with receivers on option routes. This sort of miscommunication happens on timing plays where receivers and quarterbacks need an opportunity to watch the defense react, and if Humphries is consistently getting beat, it disrupts the entire play.
4. The Cardinals knew Buffalo would run, and couldn't stop it anyway
Earlier this week, Cardinals' defensive coordinator James Bettcher said the Bills' identity as an offense was developed through their rushing attack, and that Arizona would need to emphasize the importance of making Buffalo one-dimensional.
Even though Buffalo averaged just 75 rushing yards per game through its first two contests, the Bills racked up 211 rushing yards on 30 attempts Sunday for an average of 7.03 yards per carry. Those types of numbers aren't commonplace in the NFL, and they suggest Arizona was man-handled at the point of attack.
For all of Chandler Jones' talents as a pass rusher, he couldn't get off blocks in the run game Sunday and lost contain on a handful of occasions, including once on a 49-yard scamper in the first half. Referees may have missed a holding call on the play down the field against Patrick Peterson, but that type of mistake doesn't happen if Jones holds his responsibility and keeps Taylor inside of him.
After a relatively strong output through the team's first two games, Markus Golden was largely quiet against the run Sunday as he got blocked down on a Taylor touchdown scamper in the second half.
The Cardinals' rushing defense is cause for concern, because even though LaSean McCoy has proven he has dynamic skills, Arizona is somewhat undersized up front, especially at the linebacker level. Arizona loves to play in its nickel defense, and to be able to do that and keep an extra defender geared toward stopping the pass on the field, it needs to prove it can stop the run and it did not do so at all on Sunday.
5. Arizona's third down execution has cost the team two games
Against New England, the Cardinals' third down pass defense enabled the Patriots to finish 10-for-16 on third downs and extend drives in key situations that ultimately led to Arizona's first loss.
Against Buffalo, it was the Cardinals' third down offense that took a turn for the worst, as the team faced third and long situations for much of a first half that featured a stalling Arizona offense.
Arizona finished 5-for-15 on third down, but far too many of the Cardinals' opportunities came from third and long situations that put Arizona's offense in a bind.
In the first half, Palmer attacked the middle of the field on deep routes on first down with little to no success, and a slow-developing rushing attack left Arizona in far too many long yardage situations.
A lot of this comes down to play calling, because Arizona can't take as many deep shots as it would like to if it's not moving the ball efficiently on other plays. However, much of this comes down to execution and poor route running from receivers (particularly Michael Floyd) and poor decision-making from Palmer.
On two occasions in the first half, Palmer checked down to a back or tight end on third and long on plays that had no hope of turning into first downs. If Arizona didn't insist on taking shots early in drives and on early downs, it would not have found itself in such precarious situations.
In the second half, Arizona had more success offensively at times because it eliminated deep shots, but in the end, Palmer tried to force too many throws and it ultimately cost the team a game it probably assumed it would win throughout the week.