By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL regular season kicks off Thursday night, but the Patriots will have to wait until Sunday night to get their first taste of real, meaningful football. And that first taste presents a significant test for the Pats on both sides of the ball as they head to Arizona to take on the Cardinals.
Boasting one of the league’s deepest defenses, most potent passing attacks, and most cerebral coaches in Bruce Arians, there’s no doubt that Bill Belichick and the Patriots will have their hands full for all 60 minutes. The challenges ahead for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in his first career Week 1 start against the Cardinals defense, which includes his former Patriots teammate Chandler Jones, are obvious – but what will be the priority for the Patriots on defense?
There are weapons all over the field for Arizona, but it begins and ends with quarterback Carson Palmer.
A former No. 1 overall pick, Palmer does not have the best postseason record and has not been the most consistent or durable player over the course of his career, but has enjoyed a recent resurgence under center for Arians’ aerial attack in Arizona. He threw a career-high 35 touchdown passes to just 11 interceptions, a career low for Palmer in seasons of at least 13 games played.
Palmer’s resurgence has also not come without serious injuries … He suffered his first torn ACL in early 2006, but impressively recovered in time for the new season later that year. He also suffered a serious elbow injury in 2008 and then another ACL tear in 2014 before his career-best 2015 season. Not bad for a quarterback who considered retirement after the 2010 season.
The biggest strength of the Cardinals offense is Palmer’s ability to make big plays down the field with his arm, which he does at a high level by staying upright in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield, even in the face of pressure. Belichick is well aware of what Palmer is capable of if the Patriots defense gives him too much time to throw or can’t disrupt his timing.
“[Palmer] knows when he needs to get rid of the ball and I think he also knows when he might need to hold it just a little bit longer to give the receivers a chance to get into an open space or make a play, and he’s strong and tough and able to take those hits,” said Belichick in his Monday conference call. “We have a lot of respect for him as a player, as a person, and he has certainly done a great job for the Cardinals in leading them to the success that they’ve had since he has been there.”
The Cardinals are certainly capable of making big plays that can burn you in a short amount of time, but those plays also need time to develop. If the Patriots pass rushers can get to Palmer before the receivers can sufficiently get down the field, perhaps Palmer wouldn’t be able to make the kinds of big plays that define the Cardinals in 2015.
The Carolina Panthers showed in the 2015 NFC Championship Game that if Palmer can be rushed or rattled by pressure up front, he could be forced into making bad decisions or sloppily turning the ball over. Palmer threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles in perhaps the worst performance of his career in that game; the Patriots will surely be looking at the film from that game to try to produce a similar result.
Palmer, of course, also has plenty to prove in this game and will need to (at the very least) outperform Garoppolo in the season opener, or he’ll be facing the same round of questions all over again. Belichick knows this and will not be taking him or the Cardinals lightly, despite the horrific end result to their season.
“[The Cardinals] have a lot of great players, period, but they have a lot of great players on the offensive side of the ball and they are a hard team to stop,” said Belichick. “They score a lot of points and they can move the ball up and down the field quickly, so he is one of the many problems we’ll have to deal with on Sunday night.”
Hopefully, for the sake of the Patriots defense, Palmer’s problems from the end of last season carry over into Sunday night.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.