World’s Best Preview: Deep Thoughts on Packers-Cardinals Passing Games

A look inside the numbers of these two passing attacks explains why one QB is an MVP candidate and the other is not. Plus, Peppers is sacking history, deep looks inside the Cardinals and much, much more in a preview overflowing with stats, notes and quotes we guarantee you won't find anywhere else.

If you’re looking for an inside-the-numbers look at why Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is an MVP candidate while leading the No. 1-ranked offense and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is going to be dethroned as MVP while leading the No. 21-ranked offense, here it is:

Heading into Sunday’s showdown in Arizona, Palmer leads the NFL with 8.82 yards per attempt. Rodgers is a stunning 28th with 6.76 yards per attempt. For context, Palmer’s season would be the 14th-best in NFL history; Rodgers entered this season ranked third in NFL history with 8.22 yards per attempt — meaning almost a yard-and-a-half drop-off this season.

“Oh, gosh, it’s hard to say that I’ve ever had anybody play better,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who knows a little something about quarterbacks from his time with Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, said in a conference call. “I think Ben’s Super Bowl year where we won it, he was lights out all season. Peyton’s second year maybe, 13-3 (record), but still his interceptions were up. He’s playing at an extremely high level right now with a lot of confidence.”

The Cardinals’ offense is about creating big plays. Palmer’s average pass travels a league-long 10.88 yards. That’s almost unprecedented in this age of the quick passing game, with Palmer’s average being the longest since Michael Vick in 2006.

“It’s not a completion offense where you take a real quick three-step drop and guys run 5-yard routes and you get rid of the ball,” Palmer said in his conference call. “It’s an offense where guys get going and get deep down the field. You’re not always trying to throw it deep, you’re just trying to spread the defense out and get some nice passing lanes down the field for the more intermediate throws.”

Palmer has thrown the ball at least 20 yards downfield 16.3 percent of the time, behind only Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor. From Bizarro World, Rodgers ranks third with 34 completions of 25-plus yards while Palmer is fifth with 32. But that doesn’t tell the whole picture. While Larry Fitzgerald is averaging 11.4 yards per reception, receivers John Brown (16.1) and Michael Floyd (16.0) and tight end Daniel Fells (15.2) average at least 15 yards per catch. Only James Jones (18.1) averages even 11.2 yards among all Packers with at least 10 catches.

“We actually throw more intermediate throws than people expect or assume,” Palmer said. “A lot of the stuff is really just trying to stretch defenders and we’ve caught some people not paying a whole bunch of respect to those guys running those deep routes and we’ve hit some of those deep routes. It’s a direct reflection of this offense. This offense is built to hold the ball and get the ball down the field, not taking those 3-, 4-, 5-yard completions.”

From 2009 through 2014, Rodgers averaged at least 8.20 yards per attempt in five of six seasons, including 2011, when his 9.25 per attempt was the third-best in NFL history. This season, however, too much of the Packers’ passing game has been all-or-nothing. During his MVP seasons, Rodgers completed 60.7 percent of his deep passes with 13 touchdowns and one interception in 2011 and 51.8 percent with 11 touchdowns and one interception in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, he’s at 38.5 percent with five touchdowns and no interceptions. 

That’s where the loss of Jordy Nelson has been felt so profoundly. He had five touchdown catches of 60-plus yards last season — more 60-yard receptions, touchdown or nontouchdown, than 30 of the other 31 teams. This season, on passes thrown at least 20 yards, Jones has caught 8-of-17 but Randall Cobb is 1-of-10 and Davante Adams is 3-of-14.

“Probably the receivers are different,” Arians said when asked about the difference. “He’d lost some guys that I think he had an unbelievable rapport with and chemistry with. It looks like they’re building it with James and Cobb and a couple of those guys – and the young tight end. It looks to like getting the running game back has really help.

PEPPERS RISING UP THE CHARTS

With 9.5 sacks this season, Julius Peppers has passed Hall of Famers Derrick Thomas, Rickey Jackson and Lawrence Taylor on the all-time list, which goes back to 1982, when sacks became an official statistic.

“He’s still a whale of a football player,” Arians said.

With his 2.5 sacks last week, he not only passed DeMarcus Ware (Denver) and John Abraham (whose last season was 2014) with 135 career sacks, but he also pushed closer to another milestone.

If he can get a half-sack either vs. Arizona or Minnesota next week, Peppers would become the fifth player in NFL history with nine seasons of at least 10 sacks. The others include three Hall of Famers — Bruce Smith (13), Reggie White (12) and John Randle (nine) — and a perennial Hall of Fame snub (Kevin Greene, 10).

“It’s definitely something that I think only a few guys have done it — some of the greats have done it — so to be able to be in a position to accomplish something like that is special,” Peppers said.

Big-time sack production from a player the age of Peppers — he’s 35, with his 36th birthday just a few weeks away — is rare. Since the NFL began counting sacks in 1982, there have been only 15 seasons of 10-plus sacks from a 35-plus-year-old. Abraham did it for the Cardinals in 2013; before that, no one had done it since Trace Armstrong had 16.5 for the Dolphins in 2000.

Peppers is under contract for one more season. On the all-time sack list, Carolina’s Jared Allen ranks ninth with 136, Randle and Hall of Famer Richard Dent are tied for seventh with 137.5, Jason Taylor is sixth with 139.5 and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan is fifth with 141.5. So, does Peppers have another season in him like this one to move into the top five?

“You think about it sometimes,” Peppers said of his future. “You think about it. I try not to think about it too much. You think about you can’t play forever. I’ll be 36 next year. I don’t know too many pass rushers playing at 40. So, I guess in the next three or four years, that’ll be it. But as far as specifics, I really have no clue. I guess I’ll go until the body tells me to stop.”

The sack total notwithstanding, Peppers hasn’t been as impactful as he was last season, when he had only seven sacks but added four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions for a total of nine turnover plays — second-most in the league behind Houston’s J.J. Watt. This season, Peppers’ turnover count reflects only two forced fumbles. After tallying 5.5 sacks in the first six games — with at least one sack in five of those games — Peppers had just a half-sack the following five games. He’s come on strong, though, with the sack-strip at Detroit and the big showing at Oakland.

The productivity probably has earned him another season — if he wants it. Peppers’ cap number is set to fall from $12 million this season to $10.5 million next season. Mike Neal and Nick Perry will be free agents and there’s no one one the roster ready to allow Clay Matthews to move back into full-time duty on the outside. So, at this point, it would seem a decent bet that Peppers will be back sacking quarterbacks and chasing history for the Packers next season.

“I feel great now,” Peppers said. “If I was making the decision today, yeah, of course I can play another year. But we’ll see. We’ll see when the time comes.”

INSIDE THE CARDINALS

— The Cardinals are loaded on the perimeter. In the conclusion of his breakdown of the Cardinals’ offense on Monday, defensive coordinator Dom Capers fittingly ended it with “on and on and on.”

The 32-year-old Fitzgerald apparently isn’t over the hill. Last season, when Palmer missed the final 10 games and the Cardinals had to move forward with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley, he caught only 63 passes for 784 yards and two scores. This season, he has caught 99 passes for 1,131 yards and seven touchdowns.

Fitzgerald needs five catches to break his own team record for receptions, set in 2005, and one catch to become the ninth player in NFL history with at least three seasons of 100 catches. He ranks 11th all-time with 1,008 receptions and 15th with 13,282 yards.

“Phenomenal,” was Palmer’s one-word assessment. “From a locker room standpoint, a leadership standpoint, he’s all that you could ever ask for. He’s not worried about his numbers and his touches or any of that. He’s worried about wins. He’s at that point in his career. When your superstar guy has that kind of attitude and that kind of work ethic, it just rubs off on everybody else. He’s been phenomenal all year long.”

Fitzgerald isn’t a one-man show, though. John Brown has 58 receptions for 933 yards and six touchdowns and Floyd has 45 receptions for 722 yards and six touchdowns. If not for Floyd catching only eight passes in the first five games because of a hand injury, the Cardinals would be in position to have three receivers with 1,000-yard seasons.

It’s a diverse trio. Fitzgerald is 6-3, 218 and still an elite talent. Floyd is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound powerhouse from Notre Dame. Brown is a 5-foot-11, 179-pound speedster from Pittsburg State.

“There aren’t two guys that are the same,” Palmer said. “We have the big, physical guy in Larry, we have the big, physical possession receiver in Mike that can turn and run and go, we have some long-speed guys, we have guys that are really good at blocking and really good route-runners. Really, when you look at it, nobody’s game reminds you of anybody else’s game. Everybody’s got their own style and their own type of play and a different build and different gait in the way they run their routes and the way they catch the ball.”

Plus, rookie fifth-round pick J.J. Nelson (5-10, 160) has a whopping 27.2-yard average on his 11 grabs. Nelson ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, though Arians’ knowledge of him dates back to high school.

“I was at a track meet in Alabama — the state championships and my granddaughter was running,” Arians said following this year’s draft. “This kid from Midfield won the 100, 200, 4x1(00) — a little skinny dude. My son and I go, ‘Who in the hell is that?’ It just happened to be J.J. Nelson.”

— The Cardinals are No. 2 in the league with 31.8 points per game. You name it, the Cardinals are good at it: third in passing, sixth in rushing, first in third-down percentage and first in time of possession. Throw all of that together, and you get this stat: Arizona is the only team in the NFL with more touchdowns (52) than punts (51). And it’s not even close. Carolina is second with 12 more punts than touchdowns.

“They have a veteran quarterback who’s probably having a career year,” Capers said. “He’s very smart. He knows where to go with the ball. He’s been around awhile and he’s got a lot of tools and weapons around him. They have a veteran offensive line. They’ve got big, physical tight ends. Their receiving skill is outstanding. They have speed that they can go deep. You have a guy like Fitzgerald who’s just an excellent all-around football player. He’s a very good blocker. This young runner (David Johnson), you don’t have to look at him very long (until) he catches your eye. He had a tremendous game (vs. Philadelphia last week). He’s a physical guy. So, they have all the complementary phases of what you look for: an outstanding veteran quarterback, a lot of skill at wide receiver, a big, physical tight end, a veteran offensive line.”

— In our final draft rankings, provided by the NFL’s longtime head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas, Johnson checked in at No. 4 among running backs and No. 61 overall. Thomas compared Johnson to Chicago’s Matt Forte.

The Cardinals drafted Johnson at No. 86 overall late in the third round. With veteran Chris Johnson on short-term injured reserve, David Johnson has emerged as an all-around threat. He’s scored seven rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns and one kickoff-return touchdown for a franchise rookie record and NFL rookie high of 12 total touchdowns. Against the Eagles, he exploited a defense that was focusing on Palmer by running for 187 yards and three touchdowns.

“I think maturity,” Arians said on what stands out about Johnson. “He’s worked hard his whole life. He had jobs at Northern Iowa cleaning latrines and working in the cafeteria. This is a very mature man who’s paid his dues. He’s not like a young guy who’s been given everything, highly recruited and they have a sense of entitlement. You have to be very aware of those guys.”

Over the last three weeks with Johnson in the starting lineup, he leads all players with 378 rushing yards (111 more than Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin) and 472 scrimmage yards (78 more than Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown). He’ll test a Packers run defense that has given up five runs of at least 20 yards the last three weeks.

“He’s a special talent,” Matthews said. “It looked like Philadelphia had some trouble tackling him this past week, so obviously we’ll have to do a better job in that regards. He not only possesses the ability to make big plays in the running game, but also he’s a guy to go to in the passing game. Young, but looks to be a complete back. As with all really good running backs, you’ve got to stop them before they get going. That’s what we need to do.”

— Considering Green Bay’s problems in the passing game, facing Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson seems like an insurmountable challenge. He’s the definition of a lockdown cornerback. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he leads the league by playing 20.8 coverage snaps per reception allowed and is second with 0.60 yards allowed per coverage snap.

“Nobody’s played better in the league than Patrick,” Arians said. “I mean, nobody throws at him. Whoever he gets is canceled out. Has been for most of the season.”

Since entering the NFL in 2011, Peterson ranks fourth in the NFL with 17 interceptions. More than likely, he’ll go up against Jones, though he has played some in the slot in his career. How can the Packers attack him?

“Well, you hope he falls down or slips a few times,” Rodgers said. “He’s a talented guy. You’ve got to put him in different positions, maybe. Just don’t let him get comfortable playing outside every time. He will follow the best receiver a lot of times, so make him play both sides and make him run around a little bit. But he’s got all the attributes you look for in a corner. He’s big, physical, athletic, he can run, great ball skills, great awareness. You’ve got to be smart when you throw his way.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— Though they faced the Steelers in Super Bowl XLII, the Cardinals haven’t won an NFL championship since 1947. That’s the longest slump in the league by a significant margin, with Detroit’s last championship coming in 1957.

Could this be the year? Maybe, though the Cardinals seemed poised to be in this position last year. They were 6-0 until Palmer tore an ACL and 9-1 until Stanton went down. Over their final seven games, including playoffs, the Cardinals went 2-5 and never scored more than 17 points.

“After I got hurt last year, it’s not like I was thinking we weren’t going to be good this year,” Palmer said. “Right after I got hurt, I thought I better get back because we’re going to be good this year, too, because we’ve got a lot of the same players coming back. The window’s still open for this group of guys and we’re trying to take advantage of that.”

— The Cardinals’ eight-game winning streak is their longest since 1948.

While the Panthers remain undefeated and the Broncos were undefeated, this will be the biggest challenge of the season for Green Bay because Arizona is a team without a major weakness.

“Arizona is an excellent football team,” McCarthy said. “Their productivity speaks for itself. I think their talent definitely speaks for itself. If you start with their offense, their perimeter group will be as big or the biggest challenge we’ve faced all year and their ability to run the ball is equal to that. They’re very balanced on offense. Carson Palmer’s having a great season. It’s a big, big challenge for our defense. And their defense, it’s a group that really plays well together. Their ability to take the football away jumps out at you on the video. They’re scheme-aggressive, particularly in situations.”

— From 1977 through 2012, the Cardinals won 10 games just once. Then Arians took over in 2013 and Palmer arrived on the scene. The Cardinals went 10-6 in 2013 and 11-5 in 2014 and are 12-2 in 2015. That’s three consecutive 10-win seasons for a franchise that had a total of six before Arians. Green Bay, meanwhile, has been a model of consistency. Under McCarthy, the Packers are making their seventh consecutive playoff appearance, a streak matched only by New England.

— In a series dating to 1921 and including the Cardinals’ trek from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona, Green Bay leads 47-23-4 — including 4-2 at Arizona.

The teams have split a pair of playoff games and they’re both oddities. In the 1982 Super Bowl “tournament” stemming from a strike-shortened season, the St. Louis Cardinals were smashed 41-16 at Lambeau Field. Lynn Dickey threw four touchdown passes, including a 60-yarder to John Jefferson. In 2009, the Packers lost 51-45 at Arizona on Rodgers’ controversial fumble in overtime.

INSIDE THE NUMBERS

— The Cardinals average 422.9 yards per game. Green Bay has beaten that number only twice this season and topped 400 yards on just three occasions. In Rodgers’ first seven seasons as the starter, the Packers’ average offensive ranking was 6.9. It enters this game ranked 21st.

“I think we have a couple of games to continue to iron it out,” Rodgers said. “A couple of weeks ago we had a great game running the football and then this last week we didn’t run the ball as well. I think the key to having that direction is to be more consistent with that balance. I think we have the opportunity to have great balance with the two backs we’ve got and our line probably more than ever this year than years past. It’s just finding ways to convert those third downs and give us some opportunities to have that balance. The difference in the Dallas game we were picking those up so that gave us more first- and second-down opportunities to run the ball. When you don’t convert those third downs you’re going to have some issues getting those balanced statistics like we want.”

— Since the start of the 2014 season, Arizona is an NFC-best 23-7, followed by Green Bay at 22-8. Turnovers have paved the way. During that span, Green Bay is plus-21 and Arizona is plus-18 — good for second and third in the conference, respectively.

This season, the Cardinals are fourth with 18 interceptions. Rodgers might not be having a great year but he’s been as great as usual at avoiding interceptions with six this season.

“Yeah, that’s got to be a bounce of the ball, you know?” Arians said. “He’s not going to throw it to you. You’re going to have to make a heck of a play or knock somebody loose from it but you can’t go into games and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to pick this guy off,’ because it just doesn’t happen.”

— Since Week 8 of the 2013 season, Palmer boasts a 25-4 record. During that timeframe, that .862 winning percentage is tops in the league by a significant margin, with Tom Brady (31-8) second at .795 and Rodgers (24-9) fifth at .727.

— The Packers are an impressive 5-2 on the road. Under McCarthy, the Packers have finished at least .500 away from the friendly confines of Lambeau Field eight times in his 10 seasons.

“Just finding a way to win,” Cobb said. “This is a tough league. Any time you can get a win, they’re hard to come by. We’ve been very fortunate over the years to get them but they’re a tough team. Going on the road in this league is very tough. Just finding a way to win, whatever it takes, at the end of the day, is all that matters.”

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— Both teams figure to be without a top defender. Green Bay’s best cornerback, Sam Shields, is doubtful with a concussion. Cardinals safety/slot corner Tyrann Mathieu is out with a torn ACL. Mathieu, a Pro Bowler, was arguably the Cardinals’ best defender. He was tied for the team lead with five interceptions and ranked third in tackles.

“The player’s outstanding,” Arians said, “but the energy and passion he brings to the practice field and to the locker room every day. You obviously lose a playmaker. You can replace football players, but sometimes it’s hard to replace people.”

It’s obviously to Green Bay’s benefit to not have to contend with Mathieu. However, it does create a separate challenge. How will the Cardinals adjust their personnel and scheme to adapt?

“Mathieu, obviously, is a dynamic football player,” McCarthy said. “As you go through the league and you’re able to watch teams and watch players, he’s a fun player to watch. He makes a lot of plays, he’s all over the field. Really, our focus is more on how they’re going to adjust to it and just really dialing into who we’re competing against this week.”

— In August, the Packers brought in former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham for a visit. Shortly thereafter, he signed with the Cardinals on a one-year deal worth up to $2.75 million. He’s the No. 2 tight end behind Fells and has caught 15 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown. Despite that so-so production, it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t have helped a Packers offense that has gotten good production in the passing game from Richard Rodgers but not nearly enough as a blocker.

“He just brings a physicality to our offense — just kind of a nasty, physical run-blocking, pass-catching, running-people-over,” Palmer said. “He’s 265 pounds, really, really strong, really, really good at the point of attack. He brings that junkyard-dog mentality to our offense where he’ll block defensive ends, he’ll block defensive tackles. He blocks people to the whistle. Not that he’s dirty whatsoever but he just wears you down defensively and really kind of pisses off defender because he’s got such a high motor. He’s blocking to the whistle blows every single play and he’s just bigger and stronger than everybody he goes up against. He’s brought a really good attitude and it’s been fun to watch.”

— Two of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL will be on the field with Green Bay’s Mike Daniels and Arizona’s Calais Campbell. Daniels recently signed a four-year, $42 million contract extension that makes him the third-highest-paid 3-4 defensive end in the league, with his $10.5 million per season behind Houston’s J.J. Watt ($16.7 million) and Campbell ($11 million). Campbell is a back-to-back Pro Bowler so good that even Cobb took notice. He’s tremendous against the run.

“Calais Campbell, I think, is their starting point and is definitely a tough guy. Our offensive line is going to have tough duty ahead of them,” Cobb said.

— Special teams put the Packers in position for 13 points vs. the Raiders last week. It will need another big showing vs. Arizona — a challenge heightened by breaking in a new long snapper. The Cardinals use Johnson on kickoff returns, where he averages 27.2 yards per return with a 108-yard touchdown, and Peterson on punt returns, where he averages 8.4 yards per runback this season but had four touchdowns as a rookie in 2011. Kicker Chandler Catanzaro has made 18 consecutive field-goal attempts.

“We probably had a few more mistakes than normal,” Zook said of the Oakland game. “But they played awfully hard (and) they did the things that we ask them to do. Statistically it might have been our overall best game, but I’m not sure it was our best game in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish every week. That’s the thing we talk about with special teams, it’s one play. You’re judged unfortunately on your worst play. And obviously our worst play was the (blocked) field goal.”

THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...

WR Randall Cobb, on what would leave him feeling good following Sunday's game: "I think just dominance on both sides of the ball. We look forward to being able to do that and putting that out. We know what we’re capable of. We know who we’re capable of being. Just going out there and dominating like we know we can."

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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