Like most pass-rushers, Brandon Graham likes a quarterback who's easy to find. Tom Brady. Eli Manning. Carson Palmer. He'd rather line up across from those quarterbacks, as accomplished and skilled as they are, than he would against one who can scurry and scramble and will abandon the pocket for the sake of saving himself and extending the play. Graham is one of the Eagles' two starting outside linebackers. He's tied for the team lead in sacks with 61/2. He prefers an immobile target.
"I like my chances against a Brady because if you take away that first read, they're going to have no choice but to stand there," said Graham, who had two sacks in the Eagles' victory over the Patriots earlier this month. "It's all about taking away that first read."
If forcing Brady to hold the football a heartbeat or two longer than he wanted was a key to the upset that, for the moment, seems to have turned around the Eagles' season, it's even more vital to their chances Sunday against Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals.
At 11-2, the Cardinals have the NFL's most thrilling offense, featuring a system, a quarterback, and a set of wide receivers that seem a throwback to the Oakland Raiders of the 1960s or the St. Louis Rams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Palmer has thrown for 4,003 yards and 31 touchdowns. Arizona's offense has produced an NFL-high 59 plays of 20 yards or more. And the Cardinals have allowed just 21 sacks, tied for the fourth-fewest in the league.
Palmer is 35, and he's as fast as a beanbag. For the Cardinals to pull off so many big plays, he has to have a lot of time to throw just so his receivers can get 15-20 yards downfield - and he needs more time for them to get farther downfield on, say, a fly pattern or a deep post. It might seem counterintuitive, then, that an aged pocket passer would be sacked so infrequently, but the statistic speaks to Palmer's intelligence, the solid play of Arizona's offensive line, and the dynamism of the Cardinals' four wideouts: Larry Fitzgerald, Malcolm Floyd, John Brown, and J.J. Nelson.
"Them boys get open," Graham said.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is often categorized, and rightly so, as an old-school kind of football mind, but what he and Steve Keim, Arizona's general manager, have done in constructing this offense, from both schematic and personal standpoints, is pretty brilliant. They found a smart, savvy quarterback with a strong, accurate arm in Palmer, and with the exception of Fitzgerald, a Hall of Famer in waiting, they appear to have not considered acquiring a receiver unless he left a trail of blue flame behind him when he ran. It's not a new strategy, just a timeless one.
Nelson, for instance, is a rookie from UAB who has just 11 receptions this season. But at this year's draft combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds - the fastest time of any player there - and he's averaging 27.2 yards per catch. Against that set of weapons, the Eagles would be foolish to blitz Palmer much.
"You still have to be able to get to him," Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said. "It's easy to say, 'Here's our plan. We can rush it this way.' They still have a good offensive line that's going to be able to protect him. But you do rush quarterbacks depending on how quickly they get out of the pocket and take off and run. Obviously, he is in the category of Tom and Eli. But they're at their best standing in the pocket. The one thing about those guys is they're not really affected by the rush. They do a great job on focusing and concentrating on where they want to go with the football. They're really impervious to what's in front of them."
So to flap the unflappable Palmer, the Eagles' defensive linemen and linebackers will have to generate pressure on their own. In turn, their defensive backs will have affix themselves to Arizona's receivers in a way they didn't when the teams met last season. Remember: Brown got behind the Eagles' defense - since-departed safety Nate Allen, in particular - and caught a 75-yard touchdown from Palmer with 1 minute, 21 seconds left in regulation, the difference in a 24-20 Cardinals victory.
From his film study, Graham said he can tell that Palmer does tend to hold the ball a while to allow those deep routes to develop. "But sometimes it's fast like Brady," he said. "You have to make sure when it's long, you're rushing. Sometimes you can get frustrated because it's been quick all game, quick-quick-quick, and then the fourth quarter comes, and they're doing more deep balls."
Graham took measure last offseason to prepare himself for tasks such as this. Knowing that he was succeeding Trent Cole as an every-down linebacker, he lost 10 pounds over the summer and has kept the weight off, increasing his speed and improving his stamina. "I feel like I'm out there and just running as fast as I can," he said. Against this opponent, he will have to.