Last week against Houston, the 49ers held Matt Schaub to a terrible 0.89 ANY/A -- meaning every time he stepped back to throw, the Texans gained 0.89 yards on average. No touchdowns and 3 picks in 35 attempts for only 173 yards gave Schaub his worst day of the season in what has quickly become a bad year for the Texans quarterback.
The San Francisco secondary performance last week moved the squad into top 5 defensive ANY/A for the season at 4.47; and they have a ripe match-up with Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals offensive line tomorrow, so expect those numbers to continue improving.
Palmer is having a down-year even by his average standards. In just about every stat you can think of, Palmer is playing the worst football of his career.
His TD% is at 2.8, his INT% at a career-high of 5, his passer rating at 67, and his sack rate at 6.3. The big stat I have been shoving around lately, ANY/A, is at 4.19 -- a whole deviation below average.
In most cases, the only comparable year for the former USC signal-caller is 2008, which was cut short by injury. Palmer played 4 games for the Cincinnati Bengals that season, losing all 4.
Somehow, however, in Palmer's 5 starts this year, the Cardinals are 3 - 2. There is no doubt in my mind the gun-slinger is a step in the right direction from Arizona's debacle at the position last year, but in order to reap the positives of risky play and avoid the negatives, one must have consistent protection. Palmer is not the kind of quarterback to play within limits, or accept what is given to him.
And that is primarily where the Arizona Cardinals have once again shot themselves in the foot. Palmer is by no means a sack prone quarterback -- in fact, every year of his career he has posted a sack rate above league average (except the 2008, injury-ridden year) - but he is enjoying no such luxury now.
Pro Football Focus has the Arizona o-line ranked 4th worst in the league in terms of pass protection. Football Outsiders has the unit ranked 14th, as their Adjusted Sack Rate statistic adjusts for down, distance, and opponent, so it might not be all bad for Palmer; but even if the San Francisco defense is missing Aldon Smith and (somehow) Patrick Willis, this is not the kind of front 7 you want to test a struggling o-line against.
So how are Carson Palmer and the Cardinals offense staying in games? Well, with defense. The 11 turnovers the Cardinals have lost are matched with 11 takeaways on the other side of the ball. 3 games for Arizona have come down to the 4th quarter, and the team is 2 - 1 there, having lost a tight one to St. Louis in Week 1, and won with 4th quarter comeback efforts behind Palmer in Weeks 2 and 4.
But that does not mean Palmer has been the reason for those comeback wins, either. Advanced NFL Stats has his WPA (win probability added) per game ranked 34th -- so that is worse than every starter and another team's back-up -- and his EPA (expected points added) per play is like-wise 30th. There is no evidence of "clutch" play here.
The recipe for success, then, is pretty simple. Don't turn the ball over. Build a lead. And let Carson Palmer throw a couple inevitable picks. The Arizona defense is about league average in defensive ANY/A this year, meaning they have not been particularly effective against the pass game. I see no reason why even our struggling receivers, with a healthy Vernon Davis to help out, shouldn't be able to find success. Balance it all with a heavy dose of Frank Gore and set the controls for cruise by the 3rd quarter.
These are not the sort of games the 49ers can afford to lose going forward, as the team keeps its eyes set on Seattle atop the NFC West.