Espn Overview Of Game One
Many felt that St. Louis was on the verge of becoming a dynasty heading into Super Bowl XXXVI. After all, they had won the championship just two years earlier and were heavily favored to defeat New England. However, nothing has gone according to plan since then. With QB Kurt Warner a New York Giant and few others to blame for their recent struggles in the playoffs, there is even more pressure on head coach Mike Martz to get results. How well he and his team reacts remains to bee seen.
New head coach Denny Green has Arizona going in the right direction, but injuries have slowed the already tough path back to respectability for the Cardinals. An upset win over conference-rival St. Louis on the road would do a lot to boost the confidence of his relatively young team and help ease the loss of some critical starters.
When the Cardinals have the ball
Rushing: Arizona needs to protect a suspect secondary that should have problems defending St. Louis' high-octane passing attack, and establishing an effective running game will help keep the Rams' offense off the field. However, don't expect Arizona to line up in multiple-tight end sets and pound the ball between the tackles too often.
Offensive coordinator Alex Wood will frequently run out of multiple-receiver sets despite the Cardinals' injuries in the receiving corps. Spreading the field creates running lanes for the backs and makes it more difficult for St. Louis to play SS Adam Archuleta, who is excellent in run support, inside the box.
SmithRB Emmitt Smith has clearly lost a step with age and doesn't show the same burst through the hole that he did earlier in his career, but he doesn't have to pick up four or five yards a carry in this game. He just needs to be effective enough to create shorter third-down conversion attempts, effectively taking some pressure off QB Josh McCown and helping Arizona sustain longer drives.
The Cardinals will try to keep Smith fresh and wear down the Rams' interior run defense by spelling him with backup Troy Hambrick, who the team acquired after losing Marcel Shipp to a season-ending leg injury. The loss of NT Jimmy Williams to a broken bone in his right foot has weakened St. Louis' depth at defensive tackle and Hambrick has the combination of size and power to take advantage.
Passing: Quality pass protection and McCown staying patient will be critical when St. Louis drops into the cover-2 defense, which should be early and often. The Cardinals' 44 sacks allowed last year tied them for second worst in the league and there is little reason to believe that protection has improved considerably.
It doesn't help that LDE Leonard Little, who recorded 12.5 sacks last year, has the speed to run by ROT Anthony Clement and the agility to redirect inside when Clement takes away the outside. Arizona can help its offensive line by keeping a back or tight end in to help out in pass protection at times. This limits McCown's options, but it should give him more time to go through his progressions.
McCownThe Cardinals cannot afford to turn the ball over in this game, so McCown must go through his reads and take what the defense gives him. The cover-2 is designed to protect against the big play because the corners get safety help over the top. If McCown tries to force the ball to WR Larry Fitzgerald downfield, either Archuleta or FS Aeneas Williams will rotate over.
Williams excels at reading opposing quarterbacks' eyes and has the ball skills to make McCown pay for any mistakes he makes downfield. While Larry Marmie will continue to run ample amounts of cover-2, he is expected to blitz more than former Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith did a year ago. McCown must recognize when Marmie is going to bring pressure and take advantage of the single-coverage opportunities the blitz creates.
When the Rams have the ball
Rushing: The impact of ROT Kyle Turley's season-ending back injury, LOT Orlando Pace's contract holdout during the preseason and the release of OC Dave Wohlabaugh could be significant. Offensive lines have to play well as a unit to be effective and St. Louis' front five needs to jel quickly.
PaceAlthough the Cardinals finished with the third-worst pass rush in the league last year, they did well to add RDE Bertrand Berry during the offseason. Berry shows good quickness off the line and good closing speed to the quarterback. However, he lacks great size and Pace has the strength to dominate him at the point of attack.
The Rams can take advantage by consistently running at Berry. Pounding the ball at the undersized Berry will help wear him down over the course of the game and keep him on his heels when Arizona drops back to pass. In addition, few backs have Marshall Faulk's vision and he will cut inside if Berry starts to fly upfield in an effort to avoid the block.
Faulk is the primary back, but Lamar Gordon and Steven Jackson will get plenty of carries in relief, especially if St. Louis jumps out to an early lead. A steady rotation keeps the backs fresh late in the game, allowing the Rams to protect any kind of a lead. It also reduces the chances of Faulk, who missed give games last year, sustaining an injury.
Passing: St. Louis will take advantage of Arizona's lack of ideal talent and depth at corner by frequently spreading the field with multiple-receiver sets. Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will counter by staying conservative and running primarily soft zone coverages. While this should prevent the Rams from completing too many passes downfield, there are two problems with this approach.
BulgerThe first is FS Dexter Jackson is out with a back injury and former undrafted free agent Quentin Harris is expected to replace him. QB Marc Bulger shows a good pump fake and at times the Rams will start to roll him out of the pocket before throwing to the opposite side. If the inexperienced Harris commits to the fake or the wrong side of the field, the corners won't get the help over the top they need, resulting in some big plays in the vertical passing game.
The ability of WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce to get open underneath and then create after the catch is the second problem. Both are excellent route-runners who excel at finding the soft spot in zone coverage, and they will put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Cardinals' back seven to tackle well. As a result, St. Louis should have success moving the ball through the air even when Pendergast does drop seven to eight men back into coverage.
Green just doesn't have enough weapons on offense, playmakers on defense or the depth to overcome injuries at critical positions to win his debut with Arizona. Expect St. Louis to jump out to an early lead and force the Cardinals to abandon their running game in an effort to come back.
Once Arizona's offense becomes one-dimensional, the Rams can then sit back in their cover-2 defense. This will force the relatively inexperienced McCown to stay patient while trying to get his team back within striking distance at the same time.
With this game in St. Louis, where the Rams are close to impossible to beat, McCown should make some critical mistakes that result in turnovers. The end result will be a blowout victory for St. Louis.
Re: Espn Overview Of Game One