September 10th,2010 By:Steven G. of STLsport
|The Cardinals' dangerous air-attack retired with Kurt Warner.|
In a way, it is hard to believe football is back already, and in other ways, the wait was excruciating. But nonetheless, the NFL season will kick-off tonight (Thursday Sept. 9th) with the Vikings, and the Saints. The rest of the NFL will follow, Sunday Sept. 12th.
The Rams will start off the season against a division rival, a team they have not defeated since 2006, the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams will look to get off to a good start, and climb out of the cellar of the NFL. While the Cardinals will look to defend their 2009 NFC West title, and prove they can play without Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, and Karlos Dansby.
The Vegas betting line favors Arizona by four. But Ram fans have been optimistic about this game, as a direct result of rookie QB Sam Bradford's phenomenal preseason performance.
Here is a comparison of the two teams...
Quarterback: As mentioned, Bradford has been great so far for the Rams. It has been clear for a while that he would ultimately get the opening-day start against Arizona. But even though he played well in the preseason, the regular season is a different story. The intensity rises to a whole different level, and Bradford must be prepared for that. However, unlike the preseason, Bradford will have the luxury of Steven Jackson in the backfield for the entire game, as oppose to just one drive. The Rams will run the ball, and try to take pressure off of Bradford. If the Rams can get Arizona to respect their run game, then Bradford just might have some success through the air. But either way, it will certainly be a difficult test for Bradford, given it's his first start, and he will be facing one of the better defensive-backfields in the league.
The Cardinals will no longer have a Hall-of-Fame caliber QB under center. Warner's protégé, Matt Leinart, was released by the Cardinals, and now the team will have to rely on Derek Anderson to run the offense. Anderson's best season (by far) came in 2007, when he made the pro-bowl (as an alternate) after throwing 29 TD vs. 19 INT, with 3787 yards. Anderson has never obtained a decent completion percentage, even in 2007 his completion percentage was only 56.5%... a career high. Last season, for the Browns, Anderson (in seven starts) had 3 TD passes, 10 INT, and only 888 yards. He will have some weapons in Arizona (Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Tim Hightower) that he didn't have in Cleveland, but it is clear that Arizona will likely run the ball more than anything.
Running-Back: The Rams are thin at running-back, but their primary back is one of the best in the game. Jackson proved in the preseason that he is fully recovered from his April back surgery, and he is ready to carry the load. Jackson led the NFC in rushing yards in 2009, and he will be the Rams most dangerous weapon on offense. If Arizona stacks eight men in the box to stop Jackson, then they will have trouble stopping Bradford's arm; and if Arizona loads up on DB's to stop Bradford, then Jackson will run all over them. Jackson staying on the field, for the entire season, will be key to the Rams' offensive success in 2010.
|Rams' RB Steven Jackson will finally get to play 4 quarters in 2010, vs. Arizona|
Wide-Receiver: The Rams traded for Mark Clayton from the Baltimore Ravens. Clayton should be a pretty solid receiver, and is an ideal replacement for Donnie Avery (who is out for the season with a torn ACL). Reports indicate that Clayton is catching onto the Rams offense quickly, but it is uncertain if he will be ready for Sunday (though he seems to think so). If Clayton is limited, then the primary target for Bradford will be Danny Amendola, who has emerged as a dangerous slot receiver; and Laurent Robinson, who had a quiet preseason, but has been a productive receiver in the past. Brandon Gibson will also see some action on the outside (due to his size and physicality); and Mardy Gilyard, as well as Dominique Curry, may also be worked into the mix. Curry will likely see time on special-teams.
It is also worth mentioning that Bradford has favored his tight-ends throughout the preseason. Particularly, Mike Hoomanawanui, who caught Bradford's first two TD passes during the preseason. But Daniel Fells, and blocking TE Billy Bajema, will likely be the starters.
Arizona lost their pro-bowl WR Anquan Boldin to Baltimore. The presence of Boldin made it difficult to double-cover all-pro WR Larry Fitzgerald, who is possibly the best receiver in the NFL. But the luxury of Boldin is now gone. The team still has Steve Breaston, who posted a 1000+ yard season in 2008, and Fitzgerald is at the top of his game, but having Anderson deliver the ball will hurt the Cardinals.
Offensive Line: The Rams' offensive-line had a rusty start against Minnesota in the preseason; but since then, the line has gelled, and has been playing much better. Rookie Roger Saffold has been a pleasant surprise; he has been one of the better linemen on the team, and has already earned the starting LT job over (2009 #2 overall pick) Jason Smith. Smith will be the starting RT, and is a solid run-blocker, but needs some polishing when it comes to pass protection. LG Jacob Bell has been a disappointment ever since he signed as a free-agent in 2007, but was finally able to play at an acceptable level at times during 2009 season. Part of Bell's improvements are due to C Jason Brown, who was made the highest paid center in the league last season, after signing a free-agent contract with the Rams. Brown has been a solid foundation, and is one of the better centers in the league. Utility-lineman Adam Goldberg will start at RG; Goldberg is a solid back-up, and he will start Sunday. OG John Greco might steal the job from Goldberg whenever he fully recovers from his injury; he is back on the field, but needs to get up-to-speed before starting.
The Cardinals will still have LT Levi Brown, C Lyle Sendlein, and RG Deuce Lutui, as returning starters for their line. Each of those players have started on the Cardinal's line (for all 16 games) the past two seasons, and will be the starters again, for a third season straight. On top of that, the addition of pro-bowl LG Alan Faneca (from the New York Jets), will provide a solid upgrade for their line. RT Brandon Keith will be a starter for the first time in his career, and for the most part, he is an unknown.
Defensive Line: The Rams have struggled to establish a consistent pass-rush during the preseason. The Rams lack a beastly pass-rusher, but they are hoping Chris Long emerges as somewhat of a pass-rush threat, and has a break out year in the process. George Selvie has been outstanding, at least for a 7th round pick (2010); he has missed some time lately due to injury, but he should see some playing time in pass-rush situations. During run situations, veteran James Hall should get the majority of the snaps at DE, opposite Long.
Fred Robbins has been a solid defensive-tackle so far for the Rams. Robbins did not get a ton of playing time during the preseason, but in his limited time, he has been able to get some push up the middle. The other starting DT will be Gary Gibson, who stole the starting job from Cliftom Ryan during camp. Ryan, and DT Darrel Scott, will rotate in-and-out with Robbins and Gibson.
The Rams' d-line has been very solid against the run, which will be very beneficial this Sunday, because Arizona's offense will strongly depend on the run. But if the Rams really want to get ahead in the game, the line must also provide a pass-rush.
Arizona has a solid DE in Darnell Dockett; whichever Rams' OT faces Dockett will have their work cut out for them. Calais Campbell had a solid year for Arizona in 2009, but it was his first year as a starter. It is not clear yet if Campbell will continue his success in his second year; but if he's at the top of his game, he could possibly cause some problems. NT Bryan Robinson is just average; with Jason Brown at center for the Rams, their o-line should be able to focus on Dockett and Campbell effectively.
Linebacker: James Laurinaitis will lead the way for the Rams' linebacking core, as he looks to build on his promising rookie campaign, which led to him getting a vote for 'defensive rookie of the year'. Larry Grant has been a beast in the preseason, and has rightfully earned a starting role at OLB. Veteran Na'il Diggs will start at the other OLB spot. They have been solid against the run, but it would be nice to see the linebackers help out in the pass rush. The linebackers will be busy all day, as Arizona will likely run the ball for the majority of their offensive plays.
Joey Porter is a sack machine, and even though he has a knee injury, he will be expected to play Sunday. Hopefully Porter's injury slows him down a bit, or else he might be dangerous against the Rams' inexperienced tackles. The Cardinals are pretty weak at MLB, Paris Lenon is one of their inside-linebackers, and as most Rams fans know, he is nothing to worry about (Lenon was a starting linebacker for the Rams in 2009). The other inside-linebacker is rookie Daryl Washington (2nd round pick 2010), who shouldn't be a major factor, due to inexperience. Clark Haggans will start at OLB opposite Porter. Haggans is experienced, and a solid starter, but he is not an elite player.
Defensive-Backs: The Rams have struggled against the pass so far, at least in the preseason. It has probably been due to the lack of a pass-rush, and the fact that their starters have been limited. OJ Atogwe will be starting at FS, and he has been absent from the line-up for most of the preseason. The sure-tackler, SS Craig Dahl, will be the other starter. Ron Bartell will the the primary CB; Bartell has been a solid starter for the Rams, but had a down year in 2009 due to injury. Opposite Bartell, the impressive second-year player Bradley Fletcher will be the other starting CB. Fletcher showed a lot of promise during his rookie campaign, but was placed on the IR early on, due to a season ending knee injury. Fletcher looks to be fully recovered from his injury. Overall, the Rams' secondary should be much improved from the preseason, with all of their starters playing full-time.
The Cardinals have a very strong secondary, and it is clearly the strong point of their defense. Adrian Wilson is one of the best strong-safeties in the game, and is a very solid tackler. Newcomer Kerry Rhodes started 14 games for the New York Jets in 2009, when the Jets finished with the best defense in the NFL. Rhodes is a solid replacement for Antrel Rolle, who left the Cardinals this past off-season as a free-agent. Dominique Rogers-Cromartie made the pro-bowl last year, which was only his second year in the league. Roger-Cromartie, and Wilson, are the two players that make this possibly an elite unit for the Cardinals.
OVERALL: The Cardinals' offense is not as dangerous as it has been the past two seasons. Their new QB, Anderson, is prone to making mistakes. If the Rams' defense remains solid against the run, then the Rams should be able to effectively contain the Cardinals' offense.
Arizona's defense has surrendered 45 points in each of their last two (real) games. If their defense plays that way against the Rams, then it will likely be an upset. If the Rams run the ball well, allowing them to open up the passing game, then that could also result in an upset.
If the Cardinals win, it will be because their run game is too much, or their pass game is miraculously better than expected, or because their defense stiffened up from last season. But, it could also be a little of all three of those things. Either way, I don't expect either team to "blow out" the other team, but the Rams certainly have a good shot at starting off their season on the right foot; by beating Arizona for the first time since 2006.