Kicking off the St. Louis Rams 2013 NFL schedule will be the visiting Arizona Cardinals, a divisional rival against whom the Rams have gone 3-9 in the last six years, but swept—by two touchdowns apiece—in their 2012 season series.
Each side will be without at least one suspended player, including Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington and two Rams players in running back Isaiah Pead and recently-released linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Prior to receiving their bans, the linebackers were scheduled starters for their respective squads.
When facing Arizona, it has become customary for one’s attention to first turn to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who has 10,413 receiving yards on his resume, struggled statistically last season because his quarterbacks combined for a 63.1 percent passer rating.
They totaled 3,383 passing yards on 55.4 percent completions, adding 11 touchdowns and 21 interceptions—horrific numbers all around. Now, most of their struggles could be traced to subpar offensive line play. The Cardinals tried to strengthen their line by adding former North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper at No. 7 overall in the 2013 NFL draft.
Unfortunately, Cooper broke his leg in the preseason and will miss his rookie year.
Arizona also added former Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Eric Winston to the mix and will return Levi Brown to the other bookend. The interior will be manned by two returning starters, center Lyle Sendlein (11 games started in 2012) and left guard Daryn Colledge, with Paul Fanaika at right guard.
Fanaika, 27 years old, has not started an NFL game while Brown missed all of last season with a triceps injury.
Both of them—along with the rest of the line—will be tested by a St. Louis front four blessed with continuity, which spearheaded an NFL-leading sack-attack defense last year (52 sacks). The Cardinals offensive line was to thank (or blame) for much of that production, as St. Louis recorded 11 sacks in two games against Arizona.
That’s how you marginalize Fitzgerald: wreaking havoc on his offensive line and beating up his quarterback. As expected, he totaled just 11 catches for 123 yards on 27 targets in his appearances against the Rams.
Carson Palmer figures to improve the Cardinals QB situation, but how much he’ll be able to do behind an offensive line stocked with moving parts against a ferocious pass rush remains to be seen. While Fitzgerald deals with Cortland Finnegan and Rodney McLeod on a regular basis, Palmer will be fleeing from Robert Quinn, Chris Long and a blitzing T.J. McDonald.
Janoris Jenkins can hang with Michael Floyd (five catches for 52 yards against the Rams as a rookie), if that’s how he’s deployed.
Coach Jeff Fisher could also opt to have Finnegan attempt to shut Floyd out, while Jenkins and McLeod tag-team Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals running game will also suffer from uninspired play up front. They averaged 3.4 yards per carry overall in 2012, but the number shrinks to 2.9 when just taking the running backs into account. Free-agent addition Rashard Mendenhall is averaging 4.1 yards per tote in his career, so it’s a bit far-fetched to assume that he will single-handedly revive that statistic for his new team.
Especially while working his way back from a torn ACL and subsequent injury to the same knee.
If the Cardinals are going to put up 30—or even 20—they’re probably going to need the defense or special teams to score for them.
Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu figure to factor prominently in one (or both) of those units. It’ll be interesting to see how they try to prevent the new-look Rams from putting up points without their rising star inside linebacker Daryl Washington.
Be on the lookout for the free safety Mathieu to come down into the nickel spot and man up on Tavon Austin once or twice—or often. Peterson will probably be tasked with covering Chris Givens while Jake Long and Rodger Saffold deal with Arizona’s edge-rushers.
Sam Bradford doesn’t have to force anything to Givens if sending him on deep routes takes Peterson and a safety out of the play. The Cardinals can’t ignore Givens’ speed: He went off for 50-yard gains in five consecutive games, including a 51-yard touchdown against them in Week 5.
All told, Givens tallied 166 yards and two scores on six catches (11 targets) against Arizona as a rookie.
Giving up 15.1 yards per target to a guy is problematic.
Austin becomes a wild card in this matchup because Danny Amendola left both of his 2012 appearances against Arizona due to injury—so we haven't seen Austin play to his full potential.
Austin only hauled in two catches—one in each game—but each went for at least 38 yards. The Cardinals will, accordingly, use Mathieu to prevent similar gains from Austin in the slot position.
The Rams will be sure to test Arizona in that regard, getting it to Austin early and often, so he can replicate or better the production that Amendola vacated. Bradford targeted his tight ends just five times against the Cardinals, who had Washington available to them for both games.
Without him present, look for Sam to throw to Jared Cook at least five times in Week 1 alone.
Sixteen of Daryl Richardson’s 98 carries were against Arizona’s red-and-white uniforms. He’s seen more carries (but no catches) against the Cardinals than any other team in his professional career thus far. He’s seen moderate success: 4.2 yards per carry for 67 yards.
Richardson averaged 4.8 yards per rush as a rookie.
Steven Jackson fared even better: 5.1 yards per carry on 42 attempts, boosting his 4.1 overall average. Expect Zac Stacy to get some love from the coaching staff as they explore what a punishing, heavier runner will get done facing Arizona’s front.
Prediction: Rams, 34-13
Jamal Collier graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and is now a law student who covers the St. Louis Rams in his spare time. His work also appears on Yahoo!. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @JCollierD