This week’s three keys to an Arizona Cardinals victory are much like what has been stated throughout the first four weeks of the 2012 season.
Standing in the direct path of the team moving to 5-0 for the first time since moving to Arizona is a St. Louis Rams team coming off a home win over the division rival Seattle Seahawks. Seattle is a team the Cardinals beat at home to open the season—a team responsible for the biggest NFL controversy of the past two decades following their victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Last week, Arizona survived a scare against the Miami Dolphins, overcoming a 13-0 halftime deficit to win in overtime, 24-21. Another flat performance from the defense this week and the team may not be so lucky.
What must the Cardinals do to become the first NFL team in 2012 to five wins?
Win the Battle in the Trenches
It seems almost cliché to say “run the ball,” but it is exactly what Arizona needs to do. Arizona is 29th in rushing at just 68.0 yards per game. Part of that has been the caliber of opponent the team has faced, with Miami, Seattle, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots making up four of the NFL’s top 12 run defenses—the former two sitting atop the league, in that order.
But part of the responsibility lies also with the interior linemen.
Guards Daryn Colledge and Adam Snyder and center Lyle Sendlein have struggled to move defenders on run plays this season. Often, whether it has been the now-injured Beanie Wells or Ryan Williams, the line has been pushed back into the runner as they get the ball.
Sometimes they win. Those are the plays that generate yards. There have not been enough of those plays, however.
According to ProFootballFocus, the Cardinals rank as the worst run-blocking team in the NFL. With a score of minus-36.5, they are 14.6 points worse than the next closest franchise, the New York Jets. Snyder is ranked as the next-to-last run-blocking guard—Sendlein, the third-worst run-blocking center.
But that could change this week.
St. Louis’ defensive tackles, Kendall Langford and rookie first-round pick Michael Brockers, have been pushed around in the run game. Brockers’ first action came last week after missing the first three games due to injury, and he did not fare well against the run.
Langford is ranked league wide as second worst against the run. As a result, the Rams allow 135.2 yards rushing per game, ranked 26th.
Williams should get open lanes to run through Thursday night. That will be big in sustaining an offensive attack.
Pressure Sam Bradford
Unlike Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose completion percentage is slightly higher under pressure than when not, Sam Bradford struggles to complete passes under duress. The drop-off—67.8 percent with no pressure, 47.4 with pressure—is substantial.
He has been pressured 38.5 percent of all dropbacks, which is the sixth-highest percentage among starters.
The Rams have allowed the fourth-most total pressures on offense (52), while the Cardinals have generated the second most on defense (90). St. Louis’ entire offensive line could be in for a long day, as could Bradford. With coordinator Ray Horton’s defense getting pressure from anywhere at any time, any of the pass-rushers could end up with multiple sacks.
Inside linebackers Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington have both recorded multiple-sack games already, two of three such players to do so in 2012—Cleveland Browns inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is the other.
Starting left tackle Rodger Saffold has already been ruled out of the game and backup Wayne Hunter is questionable—both with knee injuries. What does that mean for the Cardinals’ pass rush?
If neither can play, that would leave Joe Barksdale, who was the Oakland Raiders' third-round pick last year and played in 11 games as a rookie—including zero at left tackle. That bodes very well for outside linebacker Sam Acho.
Continue Play-Action Success
According to ESPN NFC West Blogger Mike Sando, Kevin Kolb completed 5-of-5 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns out of play-action passing against Miami—a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.
That is incredible considering Arizona’s rushing attack was nonexistent.
As long as Williams, William Powell and LaRod Stephens-Howling (who is listed as questionable and whose availability for game action is unknown) perform at a higher level than that which was shown last week, play-action passing should be effective.
It will be difficult for Kolb to duplicate the numbers he put up against Miami, but completing even one deep pass off play-action will go a long way toward opening up the offense.
It cannot be used often, as the offensive line woes would doom Kolb. Typically, it takes just a little longer to run a play-action pass, so the longer it takes to get rid of the football, the better chance the line has of allowing the trio of young stud defensive linemen into the backfield—that is, defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn and rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
Matchup to Watch: Cards WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Rams CB Cortland Finnegan
It is a safe bet Cortland Finnegan will be hovering in the same allotment of turf as Larry Fitzgerald all night, and it is the beginning of what should be a physical, chippy two-game-per-season battle.
A veteran AFC South alum, Finnegan has seen his fair share of elite wide receivers throughout his seven NFL seasons. The likes of Indianapolis Colts receiver Reggie Wayne and Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson—especially Johnson—have allowed Finnegan to make a name for himself as an undersized but scrappy corner with an attitude.
We have all seen the fist fight between Finnegan and Johnson during the 2010 season (and if you have not, do yourself a favor and click this). While it is highly doubtful this soon-to-be rivalry ever gets to that level—because Fitzgerald is not that kind of player—there is no doubt it will be fun to watch.
This matchup gets an extra special tag on it, because with 140 yards, Fitz will become the second-youngest player in NFL history to reach 10,000 receiving yards. Only Randy Moss (28 years, 207 days) was younger.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, Rams 13
**NOTE** The prediction is cut short this week. In its place I would like to highlight something special being done by Larry Fitzgerald this month. Please watch the video below.
Once again this season, Fitzgerald will be making a donation for every reception and touchdown catch he makes during the month of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. He has added a wrinkle this season, however. He laid out the details in this tweet:
In honor of #BreastCancerAwareness I'm donating .25 for every new follower I get on Facebook & Twitter. I'll also b giving $5k/TD & $1k/rec.
— Larry Fitzgerald (@LarryFitzgerald) October 2, 2012
I will keep a running total in every edition of my "Keys" column each week, culminating with a grand total donated in the preview of the Nov. 4 game against the Green Bay Packers.
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