Matt Kartozian/USA Today Sports

Instant analysis: Uphill road awaits Arizona

The Arizona Cardinals fell to 1-3 and now sit two games behind a pair of NFC West foes, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Five Takeaways

1. This is Carson Palmer, and this is Drew Stanton

Carson Palmer's 2015 season begins to look more like an aberration each week, as the Arizona quarterback turned the ball over twice and left with a head injury in Sunday's 17-13 loss to Los Angeles.

Palmer has now thrown 171 career interceptions, and after tossing four picks in a devastating loss against Buffalo last week, a pair of untimely turnovers from Palmer cost the Cardinals in key situations.

After the Cardinals got out to another dismal offensive start, Palmer had Arizona's offense driving inside of the four-minute mark in the second quarter with an opportunity to tie the game 10-10. Instead, an ill-advised down field attempt to 5-foot-10 receiver John Brown landed in the hands of Rams' cornerback Trumaine Johnson and set the tone for a Cardinals' offense that would eventually turn the ball over four more times.

Palmer finished the day 23-for-36 for 288 yards, but he consistently places the ball in jeopardy to the point where Arizona suffers drastically from his mistakes. When Palmer targets the perimeter of the field or finds holes in zones, it's hard to find a quarterback who throws a prettier ball, but far too often, Palmer takes unnecessary gambles that prevent the Cardinals from finishing off drives.

Palmer was forced to leave the game in the fourth quarter after being crunched on a sack by a pair of Rams' defensive linemen, and that gave way to backup Drew Stanton, who was underwhelming in the preseason and did nothing to inspire confidence from the Cardinals' coaching staff Sunday.

Stanton finished 4-for-11 in one of the most difficult situations a backup quarterback will ever encounter, but his two interceptions cost the Cardinals their final opportunities to steal the game away from the Rams. Few teams in the NFL possess good backup quarterbacks, and it's hard to fault Stanton when he entered a game in which the Cardinals' offense lacked rhythm, but it's puzzling why Arizona has refused to entertain a competition for the backup quarterback spot.

The Palmer and Stanton we saw Sunday are likely the versions we'll see of Palmer and Stanton (if he plays) for the remainder of the season. Too many jeopardy throws in too many critical situations, and that's going to cost the Cardinals down the stretch.

2. It's time to sound the alarm 

The Cardinals have finished the first quarter of their season without scoring a single point in the first quarter of a game, and that's concerning on a number of levels.

Arizona managed 420 yards of offense and out-gained Los Angeles by more than 130 yards Sunday, but it hardly mattered because the Cardinals didn't convert on early possessions and couldn't find answers in the red zone. 

Running back David Johnson is an outstanding talent, but he's playing behind an inconsistent offensive line that was clearly out-matched against the Rams. Left tackle Jared Veldheer has been one of Arizona's most dependable linemen over the past few seasons, but that wasn't the case Sunday as All-Pro end Robert Quinn imposed his will on Veldheer. All told, the Rams recorded just 2.0 sacks against Palmer, but the team's consistent pressure was more than enough to disrupt timing and keep the Cardinals off balance. 

At 1-3, Arizona has already played three of its eight home games and won just one of them. Now, Arizona must go on the road and compete against a San Francisco 49ers team that appears poised to finish in the NFC West cellar. Nevertheless, it's a short week of rest for Arizona with the matchup against San Francisco coming on Thursday night, and Chip Kelly is actually a very difficult coach to prepare for when teams are on a time-crunch.

If Arizona loses Thursday night, and it's entirely possible it will, the Cardinals will be on the outside of the playoff race looking in and will need to scratch and claw their way back just to earn a shot at a wild card spot. Four weeks ago, this team was talking Super Bowl aspirations. That probably won't be the case leading up to the contest against San Francisco.

3. Arizona stayed the same, and therefore it didn't improve

The Cardinals made three important offseason acquisitions that general manger Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians hoped would turn Arizona from an NFC Championship game participant into a Super Bowl winner.

Arizona needed to boost its pass rush, so Keim traded for New England Pro Bowler Chandler Jones. The Cardinals needed another defensive back, so Keim signed safety Tyvon Branch. Arizona also needed to get better along its offensive line, so Keim signed veteran free agent Evan Mathis to a one-year deal.

On Sunday, Jones had his best game as a Cardinal, recording a key strip sack of Case Keenum that could have propelled the team to a victory if Arizona had performed better on offense. Still, Jones isn't a good run defender, and the Cardinals haven't demonstrated that any player outside of Jones is a particular challenge for opposing teams to block. Essentially, the Cardinals' pass rush hasn't improved.

Branch was signed to play nickel cornerback, and so far, he's been a decent option for Arizona in the secondary. Despite playing through some injury issues Sunday and ultimately being forced to leave the game, Branch has defended slot receivers well and has lived up to his contract. The problem? He's not Tyrann Mathieu, who played nickel corner last year but hasn't proven he's back to full health and therefore has been relegated to playing mostly in a high safety role this season. Mathieu made the Cardinals' defense go en route to a 13-3 record last season before he tore his ACL, and so far, he hasn't been the same player this year, and therefore, Arizona hasn't had the same defensive capabilities.

Mathis missed last Sunday's game in Buffalo with an injury, but he returned Sunday and played well against Los Angeles. However, Mathis isn't the problem. Arizona let the entire right side of its offensive line including its center walk in the offseason, and the Cardinals haven't generated the same type of push in the run game this season. An offensive line that was just okay last season needed to improve, and it hasn't.

The Cardinals played with a certain type of passion and hunger last season that couldn't be quantified -- until now, because they don't appear to have that same fire. Arizona talked titles in the offseason and may still have the pieces to make a playoff push, but it appears complacency has has replaced desire and that's never a good sign. 

4. Marcus Cooper might not be the answer

Two weeks ago, cornerback Marcus Cooper became the answer at cornerback for the Cardinals after he replaced rookie Brandon Williams and came up with a pair of interceptions in a 40-7 dominating win over Tampa Bay.

This week, Cooper started his second straight game, while the 3rd round draft pick out of Texas A&M was inactive as a result of a coach's decision. 

Throughout training camp and the preseason, we documented Arizona's severe struggles in the secondary, as no one emerged opposite Patrick Peterson as a viable starting option at cornerback. Cooper looked like man against Tampa Bay, but perhaps that's because the bar was set too low.

The Rams exposed Cooper Sunday, as wide receiver Brian Quick nabbed a pair of touchdown passes including the game-winner in the fourth quarter in front of the Kansas City Chiefs' castoff. Quick isn't exactly a household name among NFL fans, yet the Rams' No. 2 option beat Cooper in the first half on a 60-plus yard touchdown reception when Cooper lunged and missed at a tackle and then beat him in the fourth quarter on a back shoulder fade when the Rams were clearly isolating Quick against Cooper because they thought they had a matchup advantage. Turns out, they thought correctly.

It's possible Cooper will bounce back and that Quick just presented a challenge from a size and skills standpoint, but the Cardinals will face more talented No. 2 wide receivers in the coming weeks (albeit not this week), and Arizona has to find some sort of consistency on the perimeter.

5. What happened to the Cardinals' draft class?

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams played as many 2016 Cardinals' draft picks as Arizona did, and that's concerning. Earlier this week, the Cardinals released fifth round selection Marqui Christian, who was picked up off of waivers by Los Angeles. 

Cooper was active Sunday, while only fourth round selection Evan Boehm was active for Arizona. Neither player made an impact on the game, as both rookies saw playing time exclusively on special teams units.

Williams was joined on the inactive list by first round draft choice Robert Nkemdiche, who missed his third straight game, this time as a result of a coaching decision. Nkemdiche has been held out the past two weeks with an injured ankle, but Arians said he was good to go this week and then left him out of the team's rotation along the defensive line.

With Christian on the Rams, fellow fifth round draft choice Cole Toner inactive and sixth round draft pick Harlan Miller biding his time on the Cardinals' practice squad, Arizona's rookie class is having a hard time breaking into the lineup.

The Cardinals have enjoyed some outstanding drafts under Keim's watch, but this year's rookie class appears as though it's going to take time to develop. We still think Nkemdiche can become a weapon for the Cardinals, but Williams has a long way to go to become a serviceable NFL cornerback and Fox Sports 910's Mike Jurecki reported he repped with Arizona's practice squad this week. 

Center A.Q. Shipley has performed below average this season, yet Boehm hasn't sniffed a shot at playing time with the first unit during the first four games, while Toner has been mostly inactive and is more of a project as a reserve guard. It's just four games, but so far, the vast majority of NFL teams are getting much more out of their rookies than the Cardinals are from theirs. 


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