The Arizona Cardinals will hope to maintain their perfect start to the 2012 NFL season this Thursday, by maintaining their recent dominance over the St. Louis Rams.
The Cardinals have topped the Rams in 10 of their last 11 encounters. However, the Rams no longer look like such easy marks under the stewardship of Jeff Fisher.
They've already matched their win total from last season and are unbeaten at home. Thursday's game will be determined by these three key duels.
Who will bring the most pressure? Cardinals' blitz schemes vs. Rams' D-line
The main reason for the Cardinals' success on defense has been the creative blitz schemes designed by coordinator Ray Horton. They have led to 16 sacks and could send Sam Bradford regularly scampering from the pocket.
Horton often likes to deploy a two defensive linemen look, something he is able to do thanks to the combined dominance of Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. The Rams did an excellent job of identifying and blocking the Washington Redskins' blitz packages in Week 2 and will need to be equally adept against Horton's unit.
To create their own pressure, the Rams usually rely on their front four. That's easy to do with a pair of rush ends as prolific as Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
The duo have combined for five of the Rams six sacks. That's not good news for a Cardinals O-line that has surrendered 14 sacks in four games.
Fisher will let Bradford get rid of the ball quickly to speedy slot receivers Danny Amendola and Steve Smith, who can be blitz-beaters. Long and Quinn can terrorise an over-matched Arizona front five.
Which wide receiver will dominate? Larry Fitzgerald vs. Danny Amendola
Danny Amendola has always been Bradford's favourite target, and that connection has been renewed with vigour in the first four weeks. Amendola leads the team with 31 receptions, 21 more than the second most active receiver on the roster.
He is an expert at working the underneath and should be able to expose any holes in the Cardinals' zone blitz schemes.
For the Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald is still the man in the passing game. The NFL's best wide receiver still runs clever and precise routes and is always a threat to make huge yards after the catch.
If Kevin Kolb has time to get him the ball, Fitzgerald can dominate the Rams secondary.
Which Inside LB will be the most active? Daryl Washington vs. James Laurinaitis
Both teams possess talented young inside linebackers. Daryl Washington has emerged as a true star for the Cardinals defense.
A natural playmaker, Washington leads the team with 34 tackles. He has also made an impact as a pass-rusher, notching three sacks and forcing a fumble. The Rams' blocking schemes will have to account for him in any blitz package.
For the Rams, James Laurinaitis is the emotional and physical brunt of their defense. An instinctive downhill player, Laurinaitis has already accumulated 39 tackles.
After spending three seasons directing Steve Spagnuolo's complex blend of fire zone pressures, Laurinaitis seems to be relishing a role as a more traditional-style 4-3 plugger. The Rams keep him protected in the middle and he is free to flow to the ball.
At the moment, Washington just has the knack for making a big play and finding the ball. Alongside Paris Lenon, he should have the room put himself in positions to create negative plays.
Whether it plays out as a predicted defensive struggle or evolves into an unlikely shootout, this game should stay close right up until the final minutes.
The Cardinals have more talent, but the Rams have a toughness and determination that is keeping them in every game. However, count on Arizona still making enough big plays to secure a narrow win.
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