San Diego Chargers vs. Arizona Cardinals: Chargers' Week 1 Game Preview
After finishing 10-6 a year ago under head coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals are poised for a breakout year and may be knocking on the door for a spot in the playoffs come December. But before the Cardinals can get a premature jump on their postseason plans, they'll need to meet their first test of the season in a Chargers squad that is also on the rise.
San Diego ended a four-year playoff drought in 2013 under head coach Mike McCoy, and the return of Philip Rivers to elite form resulted in the Chargers having one of the league's top offenses. This time around, however, the competition only gets stiffer as San Diego ventures into the NFC West.
In what should be a telling night of action from two up-and-coming teams, expect to see one emerge and stake their claim as a contender in 2014.
San Diego Preseason Week 4 Recap
The Chargers and Cardinals squared off in the preseason finale nearly a week ago in San Diego, where the game's outcome was decided on field goals.
Nick Novak made all four of his attempted kicks to score a 12-9 victory for the Bolts.
As expected, neither team played their starters and play-calling was kept pretty close to the chest in anticipation for Week 1 of the regular season.
Last Thursday's game did, however, factor into San Diego's decision-making for the final roster.
As we've come to find out this past week, Dontrelle Inman and Branden Oliver survived the final wave of cuts thanks in part to a solid effort against Arizona. Vincent Brown, who missed the entire preseason, was waived and Thomas Keiser, who performed well last season and in exhibition play, was also let go and is coincidentally a member of the Cardinals now.
Little, if anything, was gathered from that preseason win against Arizona, but expect the Chargers to open up the playbook on offense now that wins and losses matter.
News and Notes
Cardinals hurting on defense
One of the strengths of Arizona last season was their defense, which ranked sixth in yards allowed per game with 317.4 and topped the league in stopping the run with only 84.4 yards allowed. Karlos Dansby and Yeremiah Bell, who led the Cardinals in tackles a year ago, were lost in free agency, and linebacker Daryl Washington was given a year-long suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
To make matters worse, the Cardinals also lost defensive end Darnell Dockett to a season-ending knee injury and second-year safety Tyrann Mathieu is coming off an ACL tear last season.
It's safe to say Arizona is hurting right now defensively, and that should play well into San Diego's favor.
Chargers pass rush with a golden opportunity
Generating defensive pressure has been a struggle for San Diego in recent years, but defensive coordinator John Pagano has to feel good about his unit's chances on Monday night. Carson Palmer was sacked 41 times and threw the second-most interceptions (22) last season.
Palmer didn't fare well against pressure, and despite their free-agent acquisition of Jared Veldheer, the Cardinals offensive line could still be a problem in 2014.
The Chargers have a golden opportunity to get the pass rush going early with a healthy Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram and force turnovers against a trigger-happy quarterback.
Can San Diego's offense pick up where it left off?
The Chargers offense tallied nearly 394 yards a game last season despite injuries to the receiving corps, and it was a rookie who ended up carrying the load when Malcom Floyd went down with a neck injury early on. With Keenan Allen and a healthy Floyd returning, Philip Rivers has more weapons to play with in the passing game. Add in San Diego's trio of running backs, and it's hard not to like the firepower the Chargers bring on offense.
Injury report courtesy of CBS Sports.
San Diego could be without three key players on defense if Addae, Te'o and Lissemore aren't able to go Monday.
Addae's injury leaves the Chargers without a physical presence in nickel situations, but Richard Marshall does lend the secondary more experience should he be forced to step in. Kavell Conner played well in place of Te'o the last two preseason games and would be a reliable plug-in at inside linebacker.
Lissemore, who hasn't played since the second preseason game, returned to practice this week, according to ESPN's Eric D. Williams, and looks to be on track for Monday night. His injury is the most concerning with depth at defensive tackle so thin, but the Chargers did address the lack of experience at the position with fifth-year man Ricardo Mathews. Fifth-round draft choice Ryan Carrethers is also in line to fill the void if necessary.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd vs. Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie
Fans will be treated to a very intriguing matchup in the secondary on Monday night with San Diego's top two pass-catchers going against a talented pair of corners. For Allen, this will be the first of a two-game stretch against elite corners, with matchups against Peterson in Week 1 and Richard Sherman the following week.
Cromartie has the most to prove, however, after a down year with the New York Jets in 2013. The former Charger has an opportunity to prove his doubters wrong with a strong game against a dangerous Chargers passing attack.
Corey Liuget vs. Ted Larsen
After four years with Tampa Bay, Larsen came into Arizona and beat out former first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper for the starting gig at left guard. He'll likely see plenty of Liuget on Monday night and have his hands full with San Diego's standout defensive end.
If evidence from Liuget's impressive display against two-time Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati in the preseason means anything in this matchup, it should signal a favorable matchup for No. 94.
Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd vs. Brandon Flowers and Shareece Wright
Arizona's leading receivers stand at an impressive 6'3", and when Carson Palmer gets the time he needs in the pocket, both can wreak havoc on defenses. Right off the bat, the Chargers are at a disadvantage with two smaller corners in Flowers (5'9") and Wright (5'11"), which is why defensive pressure up front is vital in slowing down Arizona's offense.
Flowers is coming off a Pro Bowl year in Kansas City, but can he bring that same effort to San Diego?
X-Factor: Ryan Mathews
On paper, Arizona's front seven isn't the same as it was a year ago with all the injuries and departures, so I expect to see the Chargers try to establish a run game early and control the time of possession.
Mathews played a big role in victories last season with his ability to pick up first downs and move the chains, and that should help open up the passing game for Philip Rivers. The last thing San Diego wants to do is get in a shootout with Arizona.
When the bright lights of Monday Night Football shine upon the Cardinals, the results haven't been positive. Arizona has won just once in their last eight MNF appearances, while San Diego is 4-1 in their last five MNF appearances.
Arizona may be the favorite at home, but don't count out the Chargers on the road.
I like what Arizona brings to the table offensively with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and their strong-armed quarterback in Carson Palmer, but that banged-up defense is definitely a weakness at the moment.
With a loaded backfield and an array of weapons for Philip Rivers, the Cardinals defense has a tough task ahead. If the Chargers can control the clock on offense and limit the big plays in Arizona's passing game, I like their chances to upset Arizona in Week 1.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Cardinals 24