Three questions and a prediction for the Arizona Cardinals’ regular-season opener Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, beginning at 1:05 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale:
1. Will Palmer have time to work?
Sunday will mark Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer’s second regular-season return from an ACL injury – but don’t expect the 35-year-old to have frayed nerves when he takes the field.
Palmer is entering his 13th NFL season, and he looked pretty sharp during limited preseason play. He’s got one of the league’s best veteran wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and young speed in John Brown and J.J. Nelson. And we may even see the return of last year’s team receiving leader, Michael Floyd, from a hand injury. (Floyd is expected to be a game-time decision.)
The big question is the offensive line, which has looked downright awful during most of the preseason. The Saints were toward the bottom of the NFL last season in sacks, but the Cards will be without injured Pro Bowler Mike Iupati and suspended starter Bobby Massie. Yes, Palmer is a veteran and has a ton of targets – but will he have time to throw?
2. Will the new rushing combo be effective?
It’s a luxury for coaches but a nightmare for fantasy football players: Knowing a team has multiple options at running back and could potentially lean on any of them in a given game.
The Cards were last in the NFL in yards per carry last season (3.3), but they appear to be in better shape heading into 2015. Rookie David Johnson had some memorable runs (and a pair of receiving touchdowns) during preseason play, and free-agent pickup Chris Johnson was sharp in the first half of the Cards’ final exhibition game.
The most crucial component of the Cardinals’ backfield, however, remains Andre Ellington. The third-year pro showed last year that he doesn’t have the ability to be an every-down back, but he’s still the team’s speediest rusher and top receiving option. Will the combination of Ellington and the Johnsons help the Cards set the tone against a rushing defense that allowed 4.8 yards per rush last year?
3. Can the Cards get pressure on Brees?
If the Cardinals are going to be a Super Bowl-contending team, they’ll likely need to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year after managing just 35 sacks last season, the ninth-lowest mark in the NFL.
New defensive coordinator James Bettcher and the Cards are looking for more pressure on the QB this year from guys like Alex Okafor, who had a team-high eight sacks last year, along with 2015 draft picks Rodney Gunter and Markus Golden.
Cards coach Bruce Arians has also talked up veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, who was invited to his first Pro Bowl last season after notching seven sacks last year. Can Campbell, Okafor and the rookies get pressure on Drew Brees, who was sacked just 29 times last year?
The Saints boosted their running game in the offseason by adding C.J. Spiller to complement Mark Ingram in the backfield, but they took a step back in their receiving game, as star tight end Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seahawks and wide receiver Kenny Stills was dealt to the Dolphins. Translation: Look for New Orleans to try to set up the run against a Cards unit that allowed 4.4 yards per carry last year.
Again, much of this game will be decided on the ability (or inability) of the Cardinals’ offensive line. If Palmer gets enough time to throw, the Cards will be fine. Arians will also count on Ellington and the Johnsons in order to keep the Saints’ defense off balance.
With as many questions as the Cardinals have heading into the regular season, two big numbers bode well for them: They went 6-0 in games Palmer started last season, and they’re 13-3 at home during the Arians era. Don’t expect the Cards to figure everything out Sunday, but expect them to end the day 1-0.
Cardinals 27, Saints 21