The Arizona Cardinals kick off the Bruce Arians era Sunday afternoon against the St. Louis Rams at Edward Jones Dome.
While Arizona has won three straight Week 1 games — including a 17-10 victory over the Rams in St. Louis back in Sept. 2010 — Jeff Fisher’s squad got the best of the Redbirds last season, winning both contests by a combined 28 points.
Both teams are expected to play second fiddle to the beasts of the NFC West — the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks — this season. However, there is still optimism in St. Louis and in the Valley.
With a bevy of veteran acquisitions (Carson Palmer, Jake Long, Jared Cook, John Abraham, Rashard Mendenhall) and an infusion of young talent (Alec Ogletree, Jonathan Cooper, Kevin Minter, T.J. McDonald, Tyrann Mathieu and Tavon Austin) during the offseason, both franchises head into Sunday’s showdown with a chance to turn some heads in 2013.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. Keep Carson Palmer upright: For the first time since 2009, the Cardinals have a competent quarterback behind center. That’s music to the ears of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts, but it won’t matter much if the former Heisman Trophy winner spends most of Sunday afternoon on the ground. In two games against the St. Louis defense last season, Arizona’s offensive line allowed 11 sacks — including nine in their 17-3 loss on Oct. 4, 2012. The good news: the offensive line will look a bit different with new faces (Eric Winston and Paul Fainaka) and the return of an old face (Levi Brown). The bad news: Chris Long and Robert Quinn still play for the Rams. As far as challenges go, Week 1 will present a notable one for the new-look line.
2. Run, run, run: Following the preseason, Bruce Arians said that the run game would be the strength of the Cardinals’ offense going into the season — so much so that the team decided to keep five running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Williams, Stepfan Taylor, Andre Ellington and Alfonso Smith) on its 53-man roster. St. Louis’ defense allowed a combined 119 rushing yards against the Cardinals a season ago, but the new stable of backs offer something last year’s group lacked: Depth and versatility. If the Cardinals can establish the run game early Sunday, Carson Palmer might have more time to throw in play-action situations. And that is never a bad thing.
3. Life without Rob: Rob Housler will be out of Sunday’s game as he continues to recover from the the sprained right ankle suffered against the San Diego Chargers during the preseason. Housler, who caught 45 passes in 2012, was thought to be a big offensive target coming into the year — given Bruce Arians’ affinity for utilizing tight ends in the passing game. With Housler out, the onus will be on Jim Dray, rookie D.C. Jefferson and Kory Sperry (three combined catches in 2012) to pick up the slack.
Noteworthy stat: In two games against St. Louis, Arizona’s offense didn’t record a single touchdown through the air last season.
Keys for the St. Louis defense:
1. Get settled in the secondary: While St. Louis returns its two top cornerbacks from a season ago in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, come Sunday the rest of the secondary will be comprised of two safeties who have no career starts — T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod. Odds are Palmer will test the duo early and often, so calming the nerves could play a big part in the outcome of the game.
2. Put pressure on Palmer: With inexperience in the secondary, St. Louis’ front four need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Arizona’s offensive line has been upgraded, as has the quarterback position, but Palmer isn’t exactly mobile when flushed out of the pocket, and right guard Paul Faniaka will also be making his first career start. If the Rams want to set a tone in the first half, a consistent pass rush led by Long, Quinn and Michael Brockers would seem like the best recipe for success.
3. Where there’s a Will there’s a way: The Rams parted ways with linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar earlier this week. Dunbar, who was already suspended for the first four weeks of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, wasn’t great in coverage but did record 114 total tackles and 4.5 sacks in 16 starts last season. In his place, Will Witherspoon with get the nod. The 12-year veteran doesn’t need to supply a ton of pressure in passing situations; but, to keep Mendenhall from having a big game on the outside, Witherspoon will need to do his part.
Noteworthy stat: The Rams allowed a season-low three points against the Cardinals in Week 5 last year.
Keys for the Arizona defense:
1. Continue to create takeaways: Preseason games don’t mean anything in the standings, but certain trends can be indicative of how the upcoming season will turn out once the games count. A positive trend that developed during the exhibition portion of the 2013 schedule was the Cardinals’ ability to force turnovers. Todd Bowles’ unit caused 10 in all, but hopefully they saved some for the regular season, particularly for Sunday’s opener. Against St. Louis last season, Arizona forced only two total turnovers.
2. Take away Tavon’s space: Tavon Austin hasn’t even played a regular season down in the NFL, and already he’s being talked about as the second coming of Percy Harvin. The No. 8 overall pick was a handful in the open field during his time at West Virginia, so it’ll be in the Cardinals’ best interest to finish off plays at the first point of contact. If the 5-foot-8 wideout is able to get out in space, it could be a long afternoon for Arizona.
3. Avoid the chunk plays: Along the same lines as containing Austin at the first point of contact, the Cardinals would be well-served to limit the number of chunk plays they give up in St. Louis. Last season, the Rams recorded six plays of 25 yards or more in their two games against the Cardinals — four of which were passes by Bradford for 37 yards or more. Blown coverages are going to happen from time to time, but the easiest way to limit chunk plays is to make the Rams quarterback uncomfortable, or at the very least it’s important to finish off tackles following completions or run attempts.
Noteworthy stat: Arizona allowed 215 yards on the ground to St. Louis running back Steven Jackson in 2012. Jackson, however, signed with the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason.
Keys for the St. Louis offense:
1. Release Richardson: A seventh-round draft pick in 2012, Daryl Richardson is now the man in the Rams’ backfield. With Steven Jackson gone and Isiah Pead suspended for the first four games, Richardson will be given every opportunity to keep the starting tailback job. During his rookie campaign, Richardson was primarily used in spot duty, but the 5-foot-10 standout out of Abilene Christian showed off his big-play speed when given the chance. On four different occasions, Richardson had carries of 20 yards or more last season. St. Louis would be wise to give him a heavy workload in Week 1.
2. Feature the new weapons: Between Austin, Cooke and rookie wideout Stedman Bailey, Bradford has plenty of new options at his disposal. Like Richardson, Austin and Bailey have big-play capability written all over them. Between Austin’s speed and Bailey’s hands, Bradford should not be at a loss for targets when looking to move the ball down the field. Cook doesn’t offer the same threat as the former WVU teammates, but the 6-foot-5 tight end is very athletic and could present matchup problems in the red zone.
3. Be mindful of No. 21: As mentioned above, Bradford should make the most of his new personnel. With that said, the former Heisman Trophy winner needs to do so cautiously when throwing to Patrick Peterson’s side of the field. In four career games against the Rams, Peterson has three interceptions.
Noteworthy Stat: The Rams scored 51 points against the Cardinals last season. It was their highest combined output against any NFC West opponent, although 14 of those points came on the defensive end.