After Week 1, both the Arizona Cardinals and the Washington Redskins are tied for first in their respective divisions at 1-0. For each of these teams, this game may be one of the most important of the season: A win for either team will demonstrate that the victorious team has truly begun to climb out of the slump that has plagued both franchises for years.
Last week, both teams were surprising in their first games. Despite their inability to stop the prolific Cam Newton in the air, Arizona was able to stop the Carolina Panthers’ ground game—something they had trouble with in 2010. The Redskins took the NFC East by surprise in their unexpected rout of the New York Giants.
This week’s matchup should be a good one as both teams continue to demonstrate why they are contenders, not pretenders, for the 2011 season. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday as the Cardinals and the Redskins face off.
A former Cardinal, running back Tim Hightower is at a disadvantage in this matchup. With the shortened offseason and free-agency period, many players were not certain where they would end up until just a few weeks before the preseason began.
Tim Hightower was one of those players who landed on another team with just over a month to go before the start of the regular season. Although these players are veterans, not all offenses (or defenses) are created equal; many of these players demonstrated in Week 1 that they are not quite comfortable on their new teams.
In the case of Tim Hightower, the Cardinals have a double advantage: He is clearly one of those players who has not yet settled in with his new team, and he is about to face the team he started with for three years.
The Cardinals’ defensive personnel know Hightower’s abilities and they know his moves. They will be able to contain him for the duration of the game.
Quarterback Kevin Kolb may still be a relatively new face in the NFL, but thus far he has not disappointed in his role as the Cardinals’ offensive leader. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, all signs point to Kolb making steady forward progress in his performance on the field.
In particular, expect Kolb to shine against the Redskins defense.
When Kolb was still the starting quarterback for the Eagles, it was his job to know the ins and outs of all of the teams he played. That is always particularly true for divisional opponents.
Provided that the offensive line does their job and keeps the pressure down on Kolb, expect him to have an excellent day against the Redskins.
In the first week of the season, injuries hit the Cardinals where it hurts. Linebackers Daryl Washington and Joey Porter both suffered injuries. Expect Porter (knee) to start the game, but Washington (calf) may sit this one out.
Washington in particular was a staple of the Cardinals defense in Week 1, recording a team-leading six tackles, two assists and one sack. If he is slowed down, it is a huge loss to the defense.
Regardless of whether or not Washington and Porter play, the core of the Cardinals’ pass defense will be at less than 100 percent at game time. Expect Rex Grossman to notice, and to take advantage of rookie linebackers stepping in to fill in the gaps.
Despite the Cardinals’ many shortcomings last year, special teams was one area that was consistently excellent. Much of that success was due to the elusiveness of LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Unfortunately, Stephens-Howling’s success last year was hampered by injury. It looks like this trend has continued into 2011. He’s questionable for the matchup against Washington thanks to an injury to his hand.
Although Stephens-Howling remains a return threat and a passable third-string running back, those qualities only matter if he can play. Without him, the Cardinals’ special teams production will be quite average.
Both the Cardinals and the Redskins have offenses capable of producing large amounts of yardage on the field. Both teams also have defenses who proved in Week 1 that they are capable of yielding huge plays to the opposition.
The Cardinals are not the only team grappling with injuries in the linebacker position: The Redskins have also seen some key defensive players struggling with injury.
Perhaps most importantly, both teams have quarterbacks who are out to prove that they deserve their jobs as starters.
Neither Kevin Kolb nor Rex Grossman may be an elite quarterback, but both have demonstrated that they can spot and take advantage of weaknesses in the defense. Expect both teams to strike as quickly—and as often—as possible.