The Arizona Cardinals play Week 1 at home against the Carolina Panthers and it's a chance for the Cards to start the season the right way. Key aspects of the game like protecting the quarterback and defensive pressure will be tested and, for the sake of Cardinals fans, executed properly.
The Cards face a young, up-and-coming Carolina Panthers squad with a rookie quarterback (Cam Newton), a new head coach (Ron Rivera) and plenty of question marks. This is a perfect game for the Cards to show the rest of the NFC West that they are here to make some noise and contend for a division title. Read on for five keys that will determine whether or not the Cards have a successful Week 1 matchup.
When the Cardinals signed him to a five-year $63 million extension, Kevin Kolb was given the keys to the offense and management is banking on him to succeed. Kolb has all the physical and mental tools but he can't get anywhere without a dependable offensive line.
The Cards signed Guards Daryn Colledge and Floyd Womack and re-signed Center Lyle Sendlein and Guard Deuce Lutui, but the line is unproven and yet to be truly tested. Their first real test comes from DE Charles Johnson and MLB Jon Beason and it will be a true indicator of the strength of the line. I expect the line to hold up fairly well but don't be surprised if Kolb has to scramble often.
This ties in with the offensive line play because Kolb has to have time to throw in order to be effective. If he does have adequate protection, Kolb could have a very good day passing the ball. Kolb has the arm to sling it and it's looking like the Cards will continue to primarily pass early and often. Ken Whisenhunt likes to mix it up and it wouldn't surprise me if Kolb had a huge year.
The Panthers don't have the secondary to stop Larry Fitzgerald, he's Kolb's favorite target and a top receiver in the league. All this points to a big game from Fitz and in turn Kevin Kolb. I expect Kolb to be pressured early and show his ability to scramble. He's mobile enough to break away from the rush and he'll look for TE Todd Heap and speedy receiver Andre Roberts as he does so.
Beanie Wells played well in limited action during the preseason, is finally healthy and looking to prove why the Cards took him in the first round. Wells has the raw skills to be a featured back in the NFL but injuries and Tim Hightower have set him back. With both Hightower and injuries now gone, Wells is the unquestioned lead back and will be given around 20-25 carries per game.
In recent years, Arizona has had a terrible running game that needs to change before the Cards can be considered a contending team. Emphasizing the running game not only moves the chains but frees up pressure that is directed at Kevin Kolb. Opposing defenses will be much less willing to blitz if they see that Wells can run effectively. It frees up play-action passes and basically keeps the defense honest.
Last year, the Cardinals had a horrible pass rush from the linebacker position and it was a definite area of concern this offseason. However, the team only signed linebacker Stewart Bradley and is counting on young players like Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington to perform.
Overall, the linebacking corps is better then last year thus I see no reason why they shouldn't be improved. With new defensive coordinator Ray Horton bringing a downfield, attacking defense, the team should be applying more pressure and, hopefully, cause more turnovers. Expect Daryl Washington and Stewart Bradley to be the leaders at the position and have big time seasons in the desert.