ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Stretch the field.
Whether Carson Palmer or Drew Stanton is at the trigger of the Arizona Cardinals' offense, this is what the unit does best.
The offense is at a crucial stage in its development under head coach Bruce Arians and assistant head coach/offense Tom Moore, who arrived last year. The expected absence of Palmer, who missed the last two games with nerve issues in his throwing shoulder, threatened to derail the progress of an offense that used deep passes to set up underneath plays with increased efficiency.
Stanton's early struggles threatened to wreck the progress of the offense, which overhauled its line, added dependable tight end John Carlson in free agency and draft blink-and-you'll-miss-him slot receiver John Brown last May. These targets were designed to take advantage of the deep, outside attention given by cornerbacks and safeties to wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
Through six quarters of Stanton's stewardship, the offense floundered, accounting for just 25 points in 90 minutes of play -- an average of 16.67 per 60 minutes. In that span, Stanton was 3-of-12 for 88 yards on passes thrown 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- well off Palmer's production of 139 yards on 4-of-8 deep passing in a Week 1 win over San Diego.
But in the second half of the Week 3 game against San Francisco, Stanton came out firing. Seven of his 16 attempts covered at least 20 yards. He completed four of the seven long-range passes for 114 yards, including two touchdowns to Brown, who drew single coverage deep, capitalizing on the attention the 49ers devoted to Floyd and Fitzgerald.
This revelation could make Arizona's offense dangerous going forward. It now possesses the capability of forcing the defense into pick-your-poison conundrums.
Including Palmer's play in Week 1, Cardinals quarterbacks have thrown 20 yards or more past the line of scrimmage 27 times, completing 11 for 341 yards, an average of 12.63 yards per attempt. On passes that arrive at their target within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, Arizona averages 5.19 yards per attempt.
And anyone could get the deep ball. Floyd leads the way with four catches for 173 yards on passes that are thrown 20-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But Brown has three such receptions (for 65 yards), Fitzgerald two for 46, Carlson one for 32 and Ted Ginn Jr. one for 25. As with the Broncos' pass-catching corps, anyone is capable of running any route, and anyone can make the backbreaking play.
"Those three receivers, I think It's probably the toughest receivers we've played so far," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "Big, physical receiver guys. Their quarterback, he loves to throw shots, throw deep. That's something that I've been doing extra myself, just catching a lot of deep balls getting ready for that."
It is possible that the threat of Brown could force Harris back into the slot when the Broncos use a nickel alignment. Harris worked outside in Weeks 1 and 2, but returned to the dual base-outside/nickel-slot role he handled during most of the 2012 season and all of 2013. Brown has played well enough to warrant extra attention, and drew a comparison to Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton from Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio this week.
"Every week it's different," Harris said. "We'll see what happens this week and you never know, I might be in there, I might be outside. You never know."
The focus on the passing game is not to dismiss the running game, which is powered by Andre Ellington in the wake of Jonathan Dwyer's domestic-violence arrest. Andre Ellington has shiftiness and is capable of making opposing tacklers miss. However, Ellington's yardage comes in clumps, and he ranks 27th of the 31 running backs with at least 40 carries in percentage of carries to pick up a first down (15.2).
"He establishes the run game and he forces you to pay attention to him," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
But without a mobile quarterback, the Cardinals' ground threat ends at running back, with Ellington the most explosive of the group. This will be the first time all season that the Broncos don't have to fret about a speedy quarterback breaking into the open field after a play breaks down.
"Not having to cover forever and not having to chase receivers forever, makes my job way easier," said Harris.
But then the notion of facing Floyd and Fitzgerald on the back-shoulder fade and Brown anywhere on the field provides a jolt back to reality.
"(Brown) is that guy that can catch the ball and make some yards after the catch. We've got to do a good job of tackling him," said Harris. "He's been a problem. He's been giving some people fits to start the season."
The same can be said of the entire Arizona offense when the deep ball works.