The Arizona Cardinals are 9-3, but things are looking dim in the desert. After starting 8-1, the Cardinals watched as starting quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending torn ACL against the St. Louis Rams. In came backup Drew Stanton, who toppled the Rams but is yet to lead a meaningful touchdown drive in the two games since.
Stanton has struggled mightily this season, especially when it comes to accuracy. The journeyman has solid receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, but he is still struggling to push the ball downfield. When you look at Stanton's numbers, you see the lowest completion percentage of any qualified quarterback at 55.3. Stanton also has six touchdowns against five interceptions while averaging less than 200 passing yards per game.
The easy thing to say here is that Stanton's struggles won't matter, because Arizona will simply run the ball. Well, not so fast. Andre Ellington is out with a severe hip pointer, and even when he's in the lineup the Cardinals run game has been brutal, only ranking ahead of the Oakland Raiders. Ellington is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry, with backup Marion Grice having 26 yards on 11 carries for the season.
Stanton will need to make some plays for Arizona to win. Against the Kansas City Chiefs and their top-ranked passing defense, that won't be easy. The Chiefs are the only team not to allow a 300-yard passer this season, an impressive statistic when you consider the quality passers they have faced.
So, why is Stanton struggling so badly? Let's look at three plays from last week against the Atlanta Falcons. They all took place in the first quarter and were indicative of the problems he suffered throughout the defeat.
The play shows a trips formation on the left side with a single receiver lined up on the right. Atlanta is playing a Cover 3, which tends to allow the underneath routes and middle of the field. Stanton needs to recognize this coverage.
This is the moment Stanton cocks his arm to throw. Do you see anybody open? Check out John Brown circled above. He is about to break towards the middle of the field and have an easy catch. Do you see pressure on Stanton forcing him to unload the ball? No. Stanton is rushing the play and the progression.
Instead, Stanton throws the ball to Jaron Brown and misses badly. The ball is behind Brown and gets tipped, luckily falling to the ground with disaster.
This is a very similar play with the formation basically flipped. The Cardinals have a single receiver on the bottom of the screen with a trips formation on the right, bunched tight to the line. Atlanta, once again, is in a Cover 3 formation.
Watch how open Jaron Brown breaks on this play. The linebackers get sucked up on the play-action and Brown has a massive gap about 15 yards downfield. If Stanton puts the ball anywhere near him, it's an easy first down and the Cardinals are in business.
This is Stanton releasing the ball, with Brown having a huge window for a reception. Stanton identified the right receiver to throw at, but the ball sails high. Brown tries to go up and get the throw which we see in the next frame.
The ball gets tipped and lands right in the hands of Falcons safety Dwight Lowery.
The Cardinals are employing a two-tight end set on the right side of the line with single receivers on each side of the formation. Atlanta is crowding the line with eight in the box and again in Cover 3.
Look at Floyd, once again working himself wide open toward the middle of the field. The space between defenders is massive, as shown by the huge red circle. The deep safety isn't even looking at Floyd, and the pass rush is nowhere near Stanton. This should be another easy 20-yard gain.
Stanton waited too long and leads Floyd too far upfield. By the time Floyd gets his hands on the ball, the corner has closed and forces an incompletion. Look at the screenshot above. Floyd is planting his foot and making a cut for open spaces at the 26-yard line. Stanton's throw doesn't hit Floyd until the 34-yard line. It's too late, and a missed opportunity.
Stanton will get Fitzgerald back, somebody who hasn't been on the field over the past two weeks. Such an acrobatic, big-bodied receiver will help, but it won't matter much if Stanton doesn't throw with more accuracy. Against the Chiefs' defense, I expect Stanton to struggle.