Jimmy Garoppolo has spent the bulk of the past two-plus years learning in the classroom and on the practice field. And waiting for an opportunity like he has Sunday night.
The third-year quarterback will make his first career NFL start when the New England Patriots take on the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night — under the lights in prime time for an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Garoppolo, 24, has thrown 31 regular-season passes since being selected in the second round out of Eastern Illinois in 2014, and none of them has come against a hungry, aggressive defense in a Week 1 showdown of two teams expected to be in the thick of the playoff hunt. But that's the situation Garoppolo is thrust into as he takes the reins for the first four games of the season for the suspended Tom Brady.
“There's so much going on right now,” Garoppolo said. “Mentally, I'm straight on Arizona, but it is a phenomenal opportunity. This is why you play the game. You play to be in the game and play; you don't want to be the backup. The opportunity is here. I've just got to go take advantage of it.”
He'll be facing an Arizona defense that finished fifth in total yards allowed, sixth in rushing yards allowed and eighth in passing yards allowed season. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim then went out and traded for Patriots linebacker Chandler Jones to pair opposite promising pass rusher Markus Golden. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell admitted he's “licking my chops” in anticipation of facing a rookie quarterback.
So, too, is Tyrann Mathieu, the versatile defensive back who returns from his second ACL surgery in three years. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he expects Mathieu to “play every single play” against the Patriots.
The goal will be to rattle the inexperienced Garoppolo, who will be playing behind a reworked offensive line that includes right guard Jonathan Cooper, who was acquired for Jones. Cooper (foot) and left tackle Nate Solder (hamstring) were limited participants in practice Wednesday.
Arians recalled scouting Garoppolo coming out of college, and likened him to a young Tony Romo.
“Jimmy's an excellent athlete,” said Arians. “A very accurate passer. Having been in the system, in that system especially, for the number of years he's been there, he's watched (offensive coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) come up with game plans and understands what they're trying to do. But he's a very good athlete. You have to defend his legs as much as his arm.”
The Patriots need to lean on their impressive depth during Brady's absence, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. New England has playmakers at all three levels of the defense, but Arizona also returns all of its skill position threats from a unit that led the NFL with an average of 408.3 yards per game last season.
Quarterback Carson Palmer is 36, but is also coming off a career year in which he threw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions during the regular season. He's supported not only by a dynamic group of wide receivers led by Larry Fitzgerald, but with versatile David Johnson and healthy Chris Johnson team in in the backfield and an offensive line fortified by the addition of veteran guard Evan Mathis.
“They're very athletic,” Arians said of New England's defense. “A solid secondary group. Interchangeable parts as far as inside and outside linebackers, which can get very confusing at times, and they do a very good job of it.”
Arians will try to stretch the New England secondary with a handful of vertical passes in an attempt to soften the underbelly of the defense. Patriots coach Bill Belichick always puts a premium on preventing big plays, and his defense created 10 turnovers during the preseason.
“You can't ignore your opponent, but you have to be responsive of what your team can do and what your players can do and what they're comfortable doing,” Belichick said. “So, it's a combination of both, and I'd say that's the way it is every week.”
While Garoppolo can expect to see an aggressive pass rush featuring an array of blitz packages he has never been exposed to in live game action, the Cardinals' defense is not without vulnerable spots. That begins with Brandon Williams, a converted college running back expected to start at cornerback opposite All-Pro Patrick Peterson. The 23-year-old Williams has yet to take a regular-season snap in the NFL, so Garoppolo has an experience edge on at least one other key figure on the field.
He also has the benefit of a veteran group of skill position players in his own right. Tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman are two of the best in the league at exploiting the seam, especially against aggressive pass rushes, and the Patriots will likely attempt to use battering ram LeGarrette Blount on early downs to keep Garoppolo out of dangerous down-and-distance situations — although one can never fully predict how Belichick and McDaniels will attempt to attack a defense.
“You never want to be too high, too low,” Garoppolo said of trying to keep his emotions in check come Sunday night. “You always want to be right in the middle. Your teammates are always looking at you, so if you react in a bad way, they're going to see that and they'll react to that. Just that calm, cool and collected mindset is the way I'm approaching it.”