Since Bruce Arians arrived in Arizona, the Cardinals' offensive identity has been fairly clear.
The Cardinals have always had a strong running game under Arians, but with quarterback Carson Palmer at the helm, no team in the NFL has enjoyed a more advanced downfield passing attack than Arizona.
The Cardinals have five receivers on the team's roster, one of which, J.J. Nelson, is on the team almost solely to stretch defenses on down-the-field shots.
Other key assets like secondary option John Brown and up-and-comer Jaron Brown have developed a knack for helping the Cardinals take the top off opposing secondaries, and their presence coupled with Arians' play calls helped Palmer enjoy the best season of his NFL career in 2015.
This season, though, the 1-3 Cardinals have struggled offensively, and one of the primary reasons behind Arizona's offensive troubles has been the lack of a dynamic downfield passing attack.
On Sunday against Los Angeles, Arizona completed just three passes over 20 yards, and didn't complete a pass longer than 29 yards. On both of the team's longest passing attempts of the game, Palmer and backup quarterback Drew Stanton were intercepted.
"I just think a lot of teams, they know our past and we like to take shots and they're eliminating them," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "We just have to be good at running the ball and setting those things up. Last week there was a lot of Cover 2, we were still able to run the ball a little bit but we have to make plays in the passing game. A lot of things we do is predicated on getting some yardage as far as chunks and we just have to take them when they're there. When they're not there just check it down underneath and play another down."
The Cardinals are the only team in the NFL that has yet to score points in the first quarter of a game this season, which is fairly surprising considering Arizona returned every key skill position player from its 2015 depth chart.
Goodwin said he hasn't been able to pinpoint why Arizona has faced such steep challenges early in games this year, but said on Sunday against Los Angeles, the Cardinals were responsible for beating themselves early in the contest.
"No, to be honest with you, second drive, obviously first drive, kind of slow, second drive we got going, then all of a sudden there was a mental error and we gave up a sack," Goodwin said. "That puts you in a hole and it forces them to get in their speciality packages on defense and try to cause us problems."
Late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's contest, Palmer was sacked by Aaron Donald and Eugene Sims and the blow he took forced Palmer to enter the team's concussion protocol. With Palmer's status uncertain for Thursday's midweek matchup in San Francisco, Stanton may be forced into action in what could turn out to be one of the most pivotal games of Arizona's season.
On Tuesday, Goodwin acknowledged Arizona can't afford another poor start against the 49ers, but also said there's no excuse for the Cardinals' offense to hit a lull at any point during Thursday's game.
"Big road game, division game, as you guys know we didn't play that well toward the end of the game last week and we need to do a better job in all phases of our offensive play," Goodwin said. "We need to do a better job of just executing early and often and not hit a lull in the middle of the game."
If the Cardinals come into Thursday's game without Palmer, both Arizona's offense and San Francisco's defense will be missing its most important player. Last Sunday, 49ers' linebacker NaVorro Bowman suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury against the Cowboys that will take some of the fire out of an already weak unit.
"Defensively, they're (San Francisco) pretty good, they're playing pretty well, obviously they lost one of their top dogs (Bowman) and he won't be out there but we still respect them as a whole, so here we go," Goodwin said.null