Having a clean pocket from which to throw will be key against the St. Louis Rams.
This week’s three keys to an Arizona Cardinals victory are stuffed full of good news for fans of the franchise. For the defense, mainly, but even the offense gets one big piece of news this week.
That, of course, is the return of running back Beanie Wells, who is back from his eight-week stint on IR and is ready to go.
Wells missed two months with turf toe, a painful injury that until last year would have kept him out the rest of the season. But under a new NFL rule that allows one player from each franchise to be placed on the Injured Reserve list with the ability to return later in the year, Wells makes his triumphant return to the lineup.
And not a moment too soon, as without Wells, the team has struggled in short-yardage situations. The Arizona offense ranks No. 17 in the league, converting 42.9 percent of 3rd-and-short situations.
More on that in a minute. Here are your three keys to a Cards victory this week.
Eliminate Big Plays
When the Cardinals played the St. Louis Rams on Thursday Night Football seven weeks ago, the Cardinals' defense played a very good game. They allowed Rams quarterback Sam Bradford only seven completions and 141 yards through the air. His seven completions were a career low; his 141 yards the second-lowest of his career.
Unfortunately, two of those passes went for 95 total yards and led to the only two touchdowns St. Louis scored all night. With better coverage—and tackling—the Cardinals had a chance to win the game and continue their implausible four-game winning streak to start the season.
Instead, the loss began another streak that continues to this day and is just as implausible.
Test Wells’ Health Early
Beanie returns to action Sunday to face the team he gouged for a franchise record 228 yards nearly a year ago to the day (Nov. 27, 2011). Wells scored only one touchdown that day, but he very easily could have scored two more if not for the knee injury through which he played most of last season slowing him down on runs of 71 and 53 yards.
Wells will be tested early in this game. If he shows he has the explosiveness and ability to make guys fall off him as he did last season, the game could be a long one for the Rams defense.
But more than just testing his knee and toe, Wells' usage will be to help new starting quarterback Ryan Lindley settle into the game. Lindley is a rookie, of course, and is making his first career start.
Backup running back LaRod Stephens-Howling had an up-and-down ride while filling in for Wells and second-year back Ryan Williams. He twice rushed for career highs, topping 100 yards in each effort (at Minnesota and Atlanta), but he struggled in three games around those two performances, averaging just 1.7 yards per carry combined against the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers.
Having Wells in the lineup will give LSH the opportunity to step back into a smaller role. It may perhaps even allow coach Ken Whisenhunt to use him more as he should be used, on the perimeter on tosses and screen passes.
Protect Lindley Better than Kolb
Kevin Kolb was sacked nine times in the loss to St. Louis early in October. He was left with a bloody mouth after being hit or hurried a total of 36 times.
Arizona’s offensive line has been better of late, allowing nine sacks total over the past three games—San Francisco, Green Bay and Atlanta.
Rookie right tackle Bobby Massie has been especially good, allowing just one sack and five pressures over that span after giving up an average of two sacks and seven total pressures per game through the first seven games of the season.
The other rookie on the line, left tackle Nate Potter, allowed the only two sacks by the line last week—fullback Anthony Sherman was responsible for the other.
The three interior linemen, left guard Daryn Colledge, center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Adam Snyder, left the box score empty in Atlanta: No sacks. No hits. No hurries.
Lindley has a more cohesive line to work with than did Kolb seven weeks ago, and the new QB's success rides on how the line performs. If the line keeps him upright and in the pocket, the rookie quarterback has the ability to make plays with his arm.
His deep accuracy was evident during last week’s loss to Atlanta despite narrowly missing receivers on three deep throws. If even one of those is completed, the game may have turned out differently.
Matchup to Watch: Cards Rookie Tackles vs. Rams Pass-Rushing Ends
Potter and Massie will have their hands full this week. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are both great speed-rushers, so stopping them will be important to the success of the offense.
Lindley needs to work on stepping up into the pocket when the edges get pinched. In Atlanta, we watched him take a sack because he attempted a Kolb-like roll-out to his right to avoid pressure—directly into a Stephen Nicholas sack.
In this still-shot of the play, we see Sherman has given Lindley a lane through which to step up. Instead of doing so, Lindley rolled to his right, directly into Nicholas' path.
“For a young quarterback,” FOX color analyst Daryl Johnston said following the play, “I think one of the hardest things for them to realize is the ability to step up gives you an opportunity to avoid the sack.”
Stepping up against these pass-rushers is a necessity. Failing to do so will result in another nine-sack performance from the Rams defense.
Prediction: Cards 24, Rams 13
This losing streak will mercifully come to an end at six games after the Cards take care of business at home against the NFC West bottom-dwelling Rams. The St. Louis pass rush will be held at bay for key moments of the game, and it will lead to just enough offense for Arizona to pull away at the end.
Wells’ return will be good, but it will not be what some may expect. If he tops 80 yards rushing, you should be surprised. However, simply having his presence in the huddle and his short-yardage ability when they need it will give Lindley just enough leeway to make plays downfield.
If the Cardinals win Sunday, are their playoff hopes still alive?
Larry Fitzgerald will get behind Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan for a long touchdown pass. That will be the back-breaker.
Ray Horton will dial up a near-perfect game plan once again. Only this time, the big plays produced by Bradford through the passing game will not be there.
And, just like in early October, running back Steven Jackson will be a non-factor all day. He carried 18 times for 76 yards, but he did not break any long runs and was held without a touchdown.
Fewer yards and no scores once again will be his afternoon.