Saturday, September 23, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

1. Dynamic Duo

In St. Louis, the fans know all about what a dynamic receiving duo looks like. Rams fans have been blessed with the ability to watch Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt do their thing for years.

In Arizona, the Cardinals are becoming accustomed to a similar experience with talented young wide outs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin asserting themselves as top-tier players.

The Cardinals are 10th in the league in passing, mainly because of their dynamic duo at receiver. Both are fast, but they have just about all of the tools to be star receivers for years to come.

“(They are) big and physical,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said. “They’ve got more tools than that, but it’s really a tough match up when you go up against big, physical guys like that. The challenge is to be able to contain them. I really mean that. They have the ability to make big plays. They’ve got a great quarterback who can get them the ball, who knows how to get them the ball. It’s going to be a pretty big challenge for our secondary to slow those guys down a little bit.”

In two games this season, Boldin and Fitzgerald have combined for 23 catches for 309 yards and a touchdown. The Cardinals passing game was in top form in the opener against San Francisco but struggled with quarterback Kurt Warner in the second game against Seattle.

The Cardinals also have other big targets in tight end Adam Bergen and third receiver Bryant Johnson, but they rely mainly on the combination of Boldin and Fitzgerald.

Expect the Rams to come with some creative coverages to attempt to limit the big plays. St. Louis gave up some big gainers in the passing game against San Francisco last week and though it’s almost impossible to stop Fitzgerald and Boldin, they have to at least limit the long plays that result in points.

“They’re complete package guys,” Linehan said. “That makes it for a tough match-up. We’ve got to be creative in how we also help those guys at times, too. Not always having to cover them one-on-one. . You’re going to have to get it done.”

2. Living on the Edge

During the offseason, running back Edgerrin James was perhaps the biggest name available on the free agent market..

Arizona inked James to a four-year, $30 million deal, giving the Cardinals instant credibility..

“He’s one of the best running backs in the league,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “He’ll give you 1,600 yards a year. There’s a real threat with their running game. We have to really prepare for both things; the running game and the passing game.”

In fact, in James’ eight seasons in the league, he has rushed for more than 1,500 yards on four occasions. This season, he is off to a slow start as the Cardinals adjust to working him into the mix offensively. On 44 attempts this year, he has gained 137 yards, an average of just 3.1 yards per attempt. He’s added 10 catches for 46 yards and has scored one touchdown.

With James, the Cardinals have a running game far beyond anything they’ve had in recent seasons. But, it’s made things a little more difficult for the offense as they search to find a rhythm.

“We add Edge to the mix (and) I’m trying to get him to feel comfortable and trying to mix what he’s comfortable with to what our styles are,” Warner said. “We’re still in that process. I think there are more good days than bad, but it’s still a process and we’re still working to it and trying to get to a high level to be one of those teams that defenses hate to see.”

The Rams have yet to hold an opposing back under 100 yards, but if they can keep James contained, it would go a long way toward a victory.

3. Stabilizing the Line

The Rams’ offensive line will have a new look Sunday against Arizona, one way or another. Left tackle Orlando Pace’s status has yet to be determined after he suffered a concussion against San Francisco last week.

Pace didn’t practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday, but he went full speed in Friday’s workout. He would like to play, but if he can’t go, it will probably be Adam Goldberg at left guard and Todd Steussie at tackle.

“I’m optimistic,” Linehan said. “Those two guys on the left side have played a lot more in the National Football League than Richie (Incognito). Anytime you have to reshuffle things, it’s not easy, but these guys are pros and having a week to prepare will give us a better chance to have success.”

If Pace is able to play, the Rams will use either Goldberg or Steussie at guard.

Incognito will start at center and has proved to be a promising prospect at the position of a strong debut against the *****. His efforts have been buoyed by the veteran help he has received from the likes of Steussie and right guard Adam Timmerman.

“It’s kind of like checks and balances where even when I am at tackle if I see him point to something and I see something different I can kind of change it for him real quick,” Steussie said.

Arizona boasts a variety of wild defensive packages and figures to attack the Rams’ revamped offensive line at any and all possible weak spots.

Defensive end Bertrand Berry and tackle Darnell Docket lead Arizona’s defensive line and are big, physical players with good speed. Ideally, the Rams will have Pace after allowing six sacks to San Francisco, but with another week to work together, the Rams need a strong outing from the line with or without the seven-time Pro Bowler.

4. Air Attack

The Rams have showed promise in the passing game last week, just missing on a number of deep balls and as those come, things will open up more for the rest of the offense.

“We were close,” quarterback Marc Bulger said. “You hate to miss those. That’s going to happen. I think we’ll get some of those over time and start coming down with some of those.”

Arizona’s cornerbacks are predominantly young and inexperienced. Antrel Rolle could be a star in the making but he should be no match for Holt or Bruce. David Macklin could start in place of the injured Eric Green. Macklin, many might recall, was burned by Holt in last year’s game at Arizona and is better suited as a third or fourth corner.

The Rams have spent plenty of time this week hoping to make the passing game click like many expect it to. Most of the players and coaches believe it’s just a matter of time before that happens and it could be as soon as this week.

“We’ve got another week to work together, another week to gel, another week to communicate, another week to get these things down,” Bulger said. “I think we’ll definitely take a step in the right direction this next week.”

5. 24

Adrian Wilson is no Kiefer Sutherland, but he does as much damage to opposing offenses as Sutherland’s Jack Bauer character does to terrorist efforts. Wilson is, perhaps, one of the most underrated players in the league regardless of position.

The strong safety out of North Carolina State has 12 tackles, two sacks and an interception in Arizona’s two games against San Francisco and Seattle. Wilson’s ability to move around and act as a Swiss Army Knife in the Cardinals’ various defensive schemes make him one of the most dangerous defensive weapons in the league.

“He’s like a linebacker playing safety,” Linehan said. “He’s a big guy who is very physical. (He’s) an excellent blitzer, but also has the ability and range in the back end to play safety. Roy Williams and Adrian Wilson are difference makers. There is never a time where you don’t have to be conscious of where they are.”

In that regard, Wilson is one of the most useful defenders in the league. The Cardinals regularly move Wilson up into the box and use him as a blitzer or as an extra run stopper. Rams fans might recall Wilson coming free and hitting Bulger last year, effectively ending his season with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder.

But Wilson is no slouch in coverage either. He has 11 career interceptions and is capable of matching up with tight ends, running backs and some receivers.

Arizona uses a variety of defensive fronts, occasionally lining up as many as five players on the defensive line. More often than not, Wilson is one of those five as the Cardinals attempt to create mismatches for one of their pass rushers.

With that in mind, the Rams have put plenty of thought and focus on containing Wilson and keeping him from making a big difference like he did in the teams’ last meeting.