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Cardinals Seek Offensive Surge

With Palmer back at quarterback, team needs more consistency in red zone


Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals' offense expect to improve on their output after a season of inconsistency thus far.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Bruce Arians can painstakingly detail the small errors which have made his offense underachieve through five games this year.

The incomplete deep shots to open wide receivers, the penalties in the red zone, the missed blocks. A play here or there and this could be a completely different conversation.

"It's really close," Arians said, "but it's not good enough."

The Cardinals are 4-1 on the season, but like last year, it's been on the strength of a defense which is ranked sixth in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.  The offense has shown stretches of the explosiveness expected in Year 2 in Arians' system, but

the overall product has been lacking.

The Cardinals are 29th in the NFL in total offense (307.8 yards per game), 30th in rushing (85.6), 18th in third-down conversion rate (40.3 percent) and last in touchdown percentage in the red zone (30.8 percent).

Running back Andre Ellington, who averaged a league-best 5.5 yards per carry last season, is down to 3.8 this year. The moment of reckoning comes when the game film gets dissected, and the offense has left the meeting room unhappy more often than not.

"We want to put it all together," left tackle Jared Veldheer said. "We're tired of coming in here Monday and seeing that we're holding ourselves back with things we're doing, self-inflicted wounds."

The Cardinals insist it's a lack of execution which has led to the slow start, not a playmaker deficiency.

The wide receivers had a bad case of the drops in the loss to the Broncos, but have otherwise been pretty consistent. There have been too many false starts and other procedural penalties in the red zone, but it's hard to pinpoint one guy.

On some runs, Ellington's been the culprit, looking for the home run instead of the steady gain. On others, an offensive lineman, receiver or tight end has missed a block.

"The last few games we had a lot of mistakes we usually don't make in practice," wide receiver John Brown said. "There's times

we try to do too much and end up messing the whole play up."

With all of these concerns, how are the Cardinals winning? For one, they've had some help from the other areas, as kicker Chandler Catanzaro has been perfect on 14 field goal attempts, wide receiver Ted Ginn returned a punt for a touchdown in New York and safety Rashad Johnson had a game-clinching pick-six last week against Washington.

Even with the offensive struggles, the team is in the middle of the pack in the NFL in the most important statistic – points per game. They are averaging 23.2 per contest, 19th in the league.

Furthermore, they are dominating the turnover battle. The Cardinals are third in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-8, giving up the ball three times and taking it away 11.

The Cardinals are the only team yet to throw an interception despite 177 attempts by three different quarterbacks and one by Ginn. With 74 more passes, the team would set an NFL record for most interception-less attempts to start a season.

Some of that can be attributed to the players' development in the offensive system, as the quarterbacks know where to throw it and when. But even the best signal-callers of all-time don't throw a pick for that long without some help.

"The guys are studying, but we've been lucky," Arians said. "We're fortunate we've had about three dropped."

While the turnovers may increase as the season goes on, there is one major reason for optimism: The return to health of starting quarterback Carson Palmer, who seems past a bothersome shoulder injury. He's played in two games this season, averaging 277 passing yards with a 64.2 completion percentage and four touchdowns.

Backups Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas combined to average 203 yards over three games, with a completion percentage of 45.8 and three touchdowns. While Stanton aided the Cardinals in two victories without Palmer, the uncertainty at the game's most important position took its toll.

"When you go through three different quarterbacks, it's a grind, it's a fight because the rhythm's off and the timing's off," Palmer said. "I'm not back to where I was against San Diego (in the opener) as far as reading things as quickly as I need to be last week and the ball coming out the way it needs to come out. That's not far off. That's something that comes back quick."

The Cardinals have a great opportunity to stay in sole possession of first place in the NFC West with a victory over the winless Raiders, who are allowing 26.8 points per game. While the defense continues to deal with a variety of injuries, a progressing Palmer makes the offense the healthiest it's been since the opener.

After this contest, the schedule ramps up considerably, beginning with a home game against the Eagles and a road game in Dallas. An offense which pledged to be a strength of the Cardinals would love to be firing on all cylinders by then.

"We haven't played a great game, even a great half yet this season, and we're still sitting here at 4-1," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "If we can just get it going offensively – make the plays I know we're capable of making, scoring the points we know we're capable of -- we can really be something fierce."

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