The Arizona Cardinals made writing this article hard this week. Although they own the best record in the NFL, they do not exactly possess a star-studded roster. Their defense is one of the best in the league, but it is riddled with injuries and suspensions. The offense has struggled through injuries of its own to starting quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Andre Ellington, who is probable this week. All-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald's production has slipped in the absence of consistent quarterback play, and former Golden Tate teammate Michael Floyd has shown only flashes.
Where does that leave us? In the NFL, when in doubt, talk about the quarterback. For the Cardinals, this just so happens to be a very familiar face for Detroit Lions fans. Drew Stanton, now in his eighth NFL season, is getting more playing time than anyone expected this season with the Cardinals thanks to several injuries to Palmer. This week will mark the former second-round pick's fourth start and fifth game of the season.
Overall, it is hard to argue with Stanton's results this season. As a fill-in starter, he is 2-1 and helped the Cardinals put the St. Louis Rams away last week after Palmer went down. After serving as a career backup in Detroit, this is Stanton's first extended work in the NFL, and he is trying to make the most of the huge opportunity he has to show off in the pass-happy Bruce Arians offensive system.
Aside from his win total, the results are mixed. Stanton's best attribute thus far has been his protection of the ball. Stanton has yet to turn the ball over as a Cardinal, which is important to Arizona's success for two reasons. First, the Cardinals have an effective, but not high-powered, offense, so minimizing turnovers allows them to control the clock and the pace of the game. Second, Stanton's ball control combined with an elite defense means that the Cardinals enjoy a +12 turnover differential on the year, which is tied for best in the league with the New England Patriots.
On paper, the Cardinals possess a fantastic receiving corps. Larry Fitzgerald has been one of the NFL's top receivers throughout his 11 seasons in the league. However, he is 31 years old now and clearly on the downside of his career, even if he is offering more production than expected this season. Third-year receiver Michael Floyd was expected to take over as the Cardinals' top receiver this year, but he has been a huge disappointment. After going over 1,000 yards and having five touchdowns last year, Floyd has caught only 24-of-52 targets for a measly 400 yards and two touchdowns. Rookie John Brown has primarily been a home-run hitter and has five touchdowns on the year and a 13.8 yards-per-catch average.
Stanton will face a tough test this week against his old team, as the Lions still rank as the No. 1 overall defense. In addition, the Cardinals will place a lot of the game on Stanton's arm, as their running game is one of the least productive in the league and they are facing a Lions defense that is allowing only 71.3 rushing yards per game.
Forcing Stanton and the Cardinals to throw works in the Lions' favor. Regardless of Stanton's ball control this season, based on his past performances, I do not trust this trend of safety to continue. Even in his limited playing time with the Lions, Stanton threw a lot of interceptions. In just 187 attempts as a Lion, Stanton threw nine interceptions, or one interception roughly every 20 attempts. The Lions have done a good job of forcing turnovers this year, with 10 interceptions on the season. I think Stanton's turnover-free streak will end on Sunday.
In addition, the Lions have been excellent at limiting aerial production this season. They rank third in the NFL by allowing 213 pass yards per game. While the Cardinals passing offense has been effective this season, it has not been spectacular. They rank in the middle of the NFL with an average yards per attempt of 7.2 and 273 yards per game.
The bottom line: Stanton is a capable quarterback surrounded by a very good team. But he faces one of the best defenses in the league and a defense that is more than capable of capitalizing on the kind of mistakes that have relegated Stanton to a backup role for most of his career.