Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
As much as they have changed this offseason—Arizona has five new starters on each side of the ball—and as much as people assume that means disaster is afoot, Monday night kicks off what should be a great season for the Cardinals.
For each positional loss, there appears to be a solid replacement ready to fill in. Replacing Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby won’t be easy, but Foote and Minter will be as good as Bowles’ scheme allows them to be.
What does that mean?
Bowles’ defense is such that the defensive line does all the work to free up inside linebackers to go make plays on the ball, be it as pass-rushers or run defenders. All the ‘backers have to do is flow to the ball.
How good were Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Dan Williams at freeing up linebackers in 2013? According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they were class of the NFL.
Arizona totaled 49 unblocked pressures last year, which was five better than the Kansas City Chiefs.
And what about those two inside linebackers?
Despite missing the first month of the season because of a suspension, Washington finished 12th in the NFL with six unblocked pressures. Dansby was even better, finishing fourth with 10. Scheming pressure for inside linebackers is what Bowles does. Foote and Minter will be just fine this season. All they have to do is flow to the ball—something both do very well.
Offensively, look for the Cardinals to test the shaky secondary of the Chargers early. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Palmer go deep on the first play from scrimmage to get the ball rolling. So look for that.
With Ellington missing some practice time with a foot injury, it’s unknown how limited he will be or if he will be cleared to start. Assuming he’s good to go, he should have a solid night against a defense that finished 27th in run defense a year ago, allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
The Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles, to whom Ellington draws many comparisons, torched the Chargers late last November to the tune of 14 carries for 115 yards (8.2 YPC) and two scores. He added four receptions for 42 yards.
Where the Cardinals could run into a problem is in covering San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. Though Gates is getting up there in years and has had injury issues of late, he’s still a big threat to a team notorious for struggling against tight ends.
Rookie safety Deone Bucannon could be used in coverage, as could Antonio Cromartie. That will be something to watch as the game progresses—who is “manned up” against Gates.
In the end, the Cardinals’ ability to stop the run and defend the pass will be what sets these two teams apart. Rivers may not come under much pressure with how quickly he gets the ball out and Arizona’s faulty pass rush, but that won’t matter down the stretch.
Rivers will struggle to find open receivers as Arizona’s improved secondary covers Allen, Malcolm Floyd, Eddie Royal and Co. like a glove. The veteran QB will get frustrated and make a fatal error late, leading to a decisive turnover.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Chargers 23
All stats provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise noted