There are quite a few players I considered highlighting for this week's matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. Specifically, rookie Tyrann Mathieu, the revitalized Larry Fitzgerald and linebacker Karlos Dansby all present interesting matchups and are coming off strong weeks. However, I think the player most vital to the Cardinals this year is newly acquired quarterback Carson Palmer.
Last year, the Cardinals struggled through quarterback play that varied between inconsistent and terrible to average a paltry 187 yards a game through the air. Of the four different Cardinals quarterbacks last year, none completed more than 60 percent of his passes and only Kevin Kolb posted a quarterback rating higher than 65. Lions fans may remember, or may have mercifully forgotten, that even the Cardinals' 38-point "explosion" against Detroit came mainly through their defense and special teams.
Perhaps the biggest victim of the Cardinals' poor quarterback play in the last few years was receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Although Fitzgerald is one of the most talented receivers in the league, he came down with only 4 touchdowns last year, the lowest total in his career. He already has half of that total this year in his one game with Palmer at the helm.
Palmer came to the Cardinals this offseason after enjoying a mostly successful career with Cincinnati and Oakland. Throughout his career, Palmer has been consistently above average with the exception of a rough half-year in Oakland in 2011. With that in mind, the Cardinals appear to have gotten a bargain when they traded a seventh-round pick for Palmer this April and talked him into taking a pay cut in exchange for a starting job.
In a Week 1 heartbreaker against the St. Louis Rams, Palmer played well and led the new-look Cardinals offense by throwing for 327 yards and 2 touchdowns. Palmer spread the ball well over the field, hitting eight different pass catchers while focusing on his new receiving corps of Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts.
Going into Week 2, Palmer presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Lions' defense. The 33-year-old Palmer showed that he can still be dangerous with his new toys last week, but he also coughed up 2 turnovers and fumbled one other ball that the Cardinals recovered. This is pretty consistent with Palmer's career, as he has averaged over 20 turnovers a year during it.
Last week, the Lions capitalized on a turnover-prone quarterback by forcing 4 takeaways. Palmer is certainly more dangerous than Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, and he has a much better receiving corps, but he still has a tendency to be loose with the ball. Against the Vikings, the Lions stacked the box with eight players more than any other team, but the Lions will be able to put more players into pass defense or blitzes against the Cardinals to force Palmer into poor decisions.
The Lions are giving rookie Darius Slay another chance to start this week, and he won't have any time to dwell on last week's rough performance. The good news is that he should have plenty of safety help, as Palmer pretty much ignored his tight ends last week. That should free up Louis Delmas and Glover Quin to provide help over the top of the cornerbacks more regularly. If Slay struggles early, look for Lions coaches to make an early move to veteran Rashean Mathis.
Palmer is a good player and has weapons around him, but he is a known quantity at this point in his career. He has proven that he can hurt defenses with his arm, but also that he can be forced into turnovers when pressured. For the Cardinals to win games this year, it is absolutely essential that Palmer is able to spread the ball around the field. If the Lions can keep that from happening, they should start the season 2-0.