Cardinals QB Carson Palmer suffered a tough day against the Seattle Seahawks’ fired-up defense but Palmer caused many of his own problems with some questionable decisions.
Seattle forced Palmer into a 12-for-25 passing day for 129 yards, one interception, and a passer rating of 60.2 — his lowest since a 2013 game against the Seahawks. Here are three plays where the Seattle defense influenced Palmer into decisions unworthy of an MVP.
• Slot fade to Michael Floyd: On the game’s first third down (with 6 yards to go), Arizona aligned in a trips bunch formation — with three receivers to Palmer’s right, and Michael Floyd as the third receiver (counting outside in). Facing press bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage from Richard Sherman, Floyd released outside to run a fade route. The Seahawks’ 6-foot-3 cornerback did what he (almost) always does: He used his inside hand to jam the receiver’s near shoulder, which impeded the receiver’s progress upfield; cut the receiver off by widening and keeping his outside shoulder ahead of the receiver’s inside shoulder; turned his head early to locate the ball; and timed his jump to deflect the pass with his long arms. In short, textbook. Sherman is the best cornerback I have ever seen defending this route, and I was teammates with Deion Sanders.
From Arizona’s perspective, the problem was that Floyd was merely a clear-out receiver, not the primary one, as evidenced by Floyd releasing over the top of the adjacent two receivers, not underneath. Larry Fitzgerald, aligned widest of the three, faced DeShawn Shead, who had to align well off the line of scrimmage to avoid the picks associated with bunch formations against man coverage. Fitzgerald was wide open on his shallow crossing route under the clutter, and as a second option, John Brown achieved an outside release against Jeremy Lane, which enabled Brown to easily win on his short out route. On third down, Floyd against Sherman was not the desired matchup for the Cardinals.
• Interception on seam route to Larry Fitzgerald: Seattle played three-deep zone, as usual, but accompanied it with a five-man zone blitz, leaving just three underneath cover defenders instead of the usual four. Arizona ran four vertical routes — the best way to beat three-deep. But while Seahawks cornerbacks usually press wide receivers at the line in base Cover 3, with this zone blitz, Seattle’s cornerbacks played “press-bail” (or “run out”) technique. They aligned initially at the line but then retreated before the snap of the ball. Cornerbacks turn their backs to the quarterback on press technique, but look in at the QB in press-bail. Thus when Palmer floated the seam route to his left — he should have driven the ball on a flat line — Lane came off his receiver from outside for the gift interception.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was livid that illegal contact was not called against safety Earl Thomas, who had bumped Fitzgerald, but the controversy masked the error by Palmer. That Lane so easily fielded the ball indicated that if there had been no collision between Fitzgerald and Thomas, Lane was in perfect position to break on the ball and hammer the Cardinals’ receiver.
• Flat route to David Johnson: With just under five minutes to play in the second quarter, and Seattle leading 17-6, Palmer attempted a benign, first-down pass to the halfback in the left flat. By NFL standards, this is a layup. Yet the throw was off target and incomplete, an indicator of how off the Cardinals were Sunday. Just as Palmer released the ball, Johnson momentarily turned upfield, indicating the flat route could have changed to a wheel route up the sideline if the ball wasn’t thrown to the flat. Yes, Johnson zigged while Palmer zagged, which happens occasionally. But I question why Palmer threw there in the first place. Sherman was in position for a big hit, with Seattle playing more Cover 2 late in the second quarter. The Seahawks lined up without disguise — both safeties were deep and both cornerbacks were in “cloud” coverage (redirecting the outside receivers before settling in the zone in the flat near the line of scrimmage). Seattle plays Cover 2 with a bit of Tampa 2 — middle linebacker Bobby Wagner gets deeper than the other linebackers to guard against inside seam routes. Therefore, the short middle was wide open where Fitzgerald ran his crossing route and that’s where the ball should have been thrown. The Cardinals punted three plays later.
• Game ball: Tyler Lockett. The punt returns were mesmerizing but the play of the game for Seattle was his reception after Arizona had pulled to 10-6 in the second quarter. A three-and-out would fuel the Cardinals’ momentum, and Seattle faced third-and-11. With cornerback Justin Bethel’s arm pinned against his chest, Lockett somehow grasped the underthrown post route for a 36-yard completion. Seattle would score on the drive to go up 17-6 and cement Seattle’s dominance.