In case you weren't aware: Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is pretty good at this whole "football" thing. For everything he's been through over the course of his career, for all of the talk of him being past his prime and being injury prone, Palmer has looked generally unstoppable through two games in 2015 and like his six starts last season, the Cardinals are unbeaten with him under center.
Coming into this year, I wrote numerous previews of the Cardinals and at the end of the day, they all boiled down to one key objective: keep Palmer upright, keep Palmer clean and the rest will sort itself out. So far, the Cardinals have done that, as he has yet to be sacked once. He's been under pressure here and there, but even Palmer's own limited scrambling ability has been more then enough to leave the pocket where necessary.
In fact, the Cardinals aren't just keeping him clean in the pocket, they consistently form their breakdowns in such a way that everyone knows where Palmer will go if things go bad and they often are able to reset and give him even more time out of the pocket as well. This is a unit that has been one of the worst in the league in recent years, but they're playing like Pro Bowlers through two weeks. Below is a chart showing the times the 49ers allowed hurries, hits and pressures compared to the Cardinals, and also how many TDs they have thrown while under duress, per Pro Football Focus.
Not everyone on the line is, of course. The right tackle, Earl Watford, has been the one consistently beaten and if the San Francisco 49ers are truly going to disrupt the Cardinals offense on Sunday, the route is probably through Watford. But for every time Watford starts to lose it, the rest of the line compensates so well that Palmer is rarely ever actually in danger.
I've taken a few plays for you to check out as an example (after each gif, I will direct link the gif in the ensuing paragraph for those of you who have issues getting them to load). In these Palmer either has great protection and enough time to get the pass away, great protection and a clean pocket to fire off the quick pass with precision, or is just generally making good throws overall.
Here's Palmer against the Chicago Bears in Week 2. This play is actually incomplete, but his receiver draws the pass interference after Palmer places the ball very well. His pocket is clean, he's not worried about the guys around him. That's the most significant thing -- the offensive line's problem is just that as far as Palmer's concerned: the offensive line's problem. He doesn't have to worry about it.
That is certainly not the case for Colin Kaepernick. He is constantly under duress, and is constantly having to worry about where the pressure is. I've actually noticed Kaepernick looking better with his mechanics through two games thus far, but he's hardly getting an opportunity to showcase his improvement. Play like that gets in a quarterback's head and affects him even when the protection is good. Here's a look at Kaepernick and Palmer under pressure this year, per Pro Football Focus.
Here's another play against the Bears. You'll notice Palmer has an underneath option that's likely a first down here, and it's a much easier throw. But Palmer knows he has time, and he knows he can make the throw that only Larry Fitzgerald can catch. There's not even Bears kind of in Palmer's way even a little bit. He's oblivious to their presence, and he makes a throw that led his receiver. Some will say it was underthrown, but I completely disagree. It was a perfect throw for the situation and Palmer was successful in exactly what he wanted on that play.
When Palmer has the time and the pocket to step up and cleanly deliver a ball, he can deliver a tight ball. This ball is perfectly placed in a dangerous situation, but Palmer has the confidence to know he will be unhindered and can put the ball where he needs to put it. He doesn't need to be given a ton of time on every play, just a clean pocket.
Here's another example comparable to the play above. No, Palmer doesn't have a ton of time here, because he doesn't need it. It's not because his line won't give it to him, it's because he can confident step up, make the throw in perfect form and hit his guy between New Orleans' zone. This is elementary for him. It's easy.
Here is yet another example of Palmer having time, not worrying about the guys around him, and finding his player for a big reception. I also made another gif but this post is getting too large as it is. You can see the other one, where he also has a lot of time, right here.
The 49ers have to get to Palmer on Sunday. It is the No. 1 objective above all else, with "keep Kaepernick protected" a close second, if they want to win the game. Teams haven't been successful thus far, but the 49ers might just have it in them, especially if they can get a big game out of Aaron Lynch or Ahmad Brooks.