RETURN OF THE SWAG
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
The story of the Cardinals' 2015 season could very well come down to a pair of repaired ACLs.
The owner of the first, Tyrann Mathieu, reports that his knee brace has come off, but it has not been thrown away. After shredding his left ACL late in his rookie 2013 season, the playmaking safety returned to the field in '14 but wasn't himself. "Being instinctive and aggressive are the things I do best," says Mathieu. "Playing with the brace, not really having full confidence in [the knee]—those things took a backseat last year."
Now the famous swag of the Honey Badger is back. Mathieu was a star of Arizona's training camp, cutting, accelerating, disrupting and intercepting with the same panache he displayed as a rookie. The despised brace lives in his locker—"a constant reminder," he says, "of where I was at one point, and where I am now."
The owner of the second, quarterback Carson Palmer, has returned from surgery on his left ACL—necessary after he tore the ligament against the Rams in Week 10 last year—looking better than before that injury. Pouring himself into his rehab with the passion and smarts of someone who's been there before (he tore the same ligament eight years earlier as a Bengal, on the first pass attempt of the first playoff game of his career), Palmer healed from that injury more quickly than do many athletes a decade his junior.
As long as he was retraining his body, he told SI in June, he figured he'd set about correcting a minor mechanical flaw that he'd noticed during self-scouting. When scanning the left side of the field, he tended to lean back, his weight on his heels, causing him to throw slightly off-balance.
That burr smoothed, his ligament healed, his body-fat percentage trimmed, Palmer looked dangerously sharp in camp—"Probably the best I've ever seen him looking," raves Mathieu. "For him to be rolling out on sprint-out plays, throwing the ball 70 yards downfield, it's really got us excited as a team, to know we got our quarterback back."
"He's lighter, a little more mobile; he's zipping the ball, his arm is definitely stronger," agrees cornerback Jerraud Powers. "Whatever he did this off-season, it worked."
Palmer repeatedly mentions—and demonstrates—an increased comfort level as he enters his third year in Arians's aggressive, push-the-ball-down-the-field, go-for-the-jugular system. After hitting Andre Ellington in stride for a 57-yard catch-and-run in Arizona's preseason opener against the Chiefs, he described that strike as "a confidence play." Reading the coverage, the quarterback and the receiver made the same sight adjustment. "To pull off the timing of that play probably doesn't happen in Year One or Year Two of the offense. There's a lot of continuity between our guys; guys have played next to each other for a while now, been in this system for a while now."
What of continuity on the other side of the ball? Arians, renowned for his offensive acumen, had long delegated the defense to the highly capable Todd Bowles, who in January took the head-coaching job of the three-ring circus otherwise known as the Jets. In his stead Arians promoted linebackers coach James Bettcher, who has vowed not to stray from the creative, relentless blitz packages favored by his predecessor. Among the reasons the Cards are blitz-happy: They have to be in order to generate pressure on QBs. As stifling as this D was in 2014 (18.7 points allowed per game, fifth lowest in the NFL), Arizona undeniably lacks a top-shelf pass rusher.
Last season, though, the D generated a middle-of-the-pack 25 turnovers—and that number is likely to rise in 2015 due to upgrades in the secondary. The team's two most talented defensive backs look markedly better than they did in '14. Quarterbacks throwing in cornerback Patrick Peterson's direction had a 64.8 passer rating in '12. Last season that number spiked to 97.0. Consider, though: It was early in the '14 season that Peterson learned he suffered from type 2 diabetes, which had caused him to gain weight. Listed at 219 pounds last year, he appears to be at least 10 pounds lighter, leading him to describe himself as "rejuvenated."
The same can be said of the Honey Badger, whose ball-hawking skills are as singular as his versatility: He can play every secondary position, including slot corner. That flexibility will make life easier for Bettcher. But in this division—the Rams are underrated, the 49ers' demise is overblown—that won't be enough.
SI'S PREDICTION: 5--11
ANDY BENOIT ON THE CARDINALS' LETHAL EMPTY SETS
More than ever, offenses are lining up in empty sets, with only the quarterback in the backfield. No team has done this more during the last two years than the Cardinals under Bruce Arians—at least, that's been Arians's M.O. when Carson Palmer (above) has been healthy. Going empty requires a nimble mind from your quarterback. With no tailback to provide a run threat or help as an extra body in protection, pass rushers can tee off, and you'll sometimes notice linebackers checking to a blitz when they see an offense arranged thusly. But obviously the formation would not be gaining popularity if it were without an upside. When an offense lines up empty, it has the ability to spread the field with the maximum five eligible receivers. This forces the defense to spread out, making mismatches more exploitable and coverages harder to disguise. In Arizona's case, these empty formations often feature a 3-by-2 alignment: an intertwined three-receiver route combination on the strong side and a deep-shot route built in on the weak side. That's a very aggressive approach, especially for a team that's only mediocre along the offensive line. Fortunately, Palmer has the progression-read aptitude to make the gamble pay off.