NFL Team Report - Arizona Cardinals - INSIDE SLANT
During his eight months as Cardinals coach, Bruce Arians repeatedly has said his team is talented enough to compete in the tough NFC West.
Now we get to see for ourselves.
Sure, it's the Rams the Cardinals are playing on Sunday, not the 49ers and Seahawks, playoff teams a year ago. But the Cardinals lost twice to the Rams in 2012.
This is a dramatically different Cardinals team. New General Manager Steve Keim and Arians dismantled the roster, much like their Rams counterparts, Les Snead and Jeff Fisher, did the year before.
The difference, however, is that the Cardinals don't believe they are going through a growth process, even though they have eight new starters and more than half of their players weren't on the roster a year ago.
No one is expecting much from the Cardinals except the Cardinals.
"You always want to be in that position," said defensive end Darnell Dockett. "Right now, I look at it like nobody is on top. We don't really focus on what everybody thinks of us. It's what we think of ourselves, more than anything."
Arians' confidence was welcomed by veterans who remained, like Dockett, defensive end Calais Campbell and Larry Fitzgerald.
They've spent their entire careers in Arizona and didn't want to go through a rebuilding process.
"There is no question in our minds that we can win this division," Fitzgerald said. "We believe in ourselves, the coaching staff we have and the players in this locker room."
They also have a veteran quarterback in whom they believe, and that's a change. Carson Palmer will be the seventh starting quarterback for the Cardinals since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season.
Everyone seems to have more confidence in him than they did in his predecessors.
"As a defense, we're excited we can get first downs," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "To have Carson as a quarterback, it gives us the ability to sustain drives, get points out of turnovers. That's a huge complement to our defense."
SERIES HISTORY: 69th regular-season meeting. Series tied, 33-33-2. The Rams beat the Cardinals twice in 2012 but the Cardinals had dominated the series before that. From 2007 through 2011, the Cardinals won 9 of 10. The first loss the Rams last year stopped the Cardinals 4-game winning streak and started a 9-game losing streak.
NFL Team Report - Arizona Cardinals - NOTES, QUOTES
--The Cardinals are expecting big things from tight end Rob Housler this year. He runs the 40-yard dash in around 4.5 seconds and can be a matchup problem for defense. They didn't throw much to him in the preseason, and he's questionable for the opener with an ankle injury. If he plays, look for Housler to be a big part of the offense. Housler dropped two passes in the preseason but he did appear to have improved his blocking. "When you can put him the game and they don't know if he's going to block or run a route, that makes a big difference to the defense," said tight ends coach Rick Christophel.
--The Cardinals kept five running backs on their initial 53-man roster. That's seems like one too many, but Arians likes the depth. Arians said he wasn't going to cut a good player at one position to keep a mediocre one at another.
--Ryan Lindley made the initial roster as the third quarterback. It was a battle for him. He was not eligible for the practice squad because he played in six games a year ago. He didn't play well, completing just more than 50 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
But as a rookie, a sixth-round pick, he was thrown into a difficult situation.
"I had a good opportunity in front of me, regardless of the situation," Lindley said of last season. "You just want to do the best you can, and I didn't do that last year. That's probably the only part that eats of me."
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 -- That's the number of years that have passed since the Cardinals had an offensive lineman make the Pro Bowl. (Lomas Brown, 1996).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told them don't go buy a car yet." -- Bruce Arians to his squad after some initial cuts.
NFL Team Report - Arizona Cardinals - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Arians and his staff introduced new concepts in almost every practice this spring and summer. Things change now. Arians job is to "streamline" a game plan for the Rams. He wants to avoid doing too much, a common mistake in the first game of the season.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson is going to take more than a handful of snaps on offense. Arians experimented with Peterson at receiver early in camp and became more enamored with the idea as the weeks progressed.
Peterson estimated he knows about 60 plays. It wouldn't be surprising if he takes 10 or so snaps on offense against St. Louis.
--OT Nate Potter, the backup on the left side, started to practice some at left guard. It's a move coach Bruce Arians has considered for months but it's the first time Potter has actually taken snaps at the position. The team wants to cross train him so he could be active on game day as a reserve.
--OG Paul Fanaika, who was out of the NFL a year ago, will start on the left side against the Rams. Bruce Arians and his staff have raved about Fanaika, who played in three games in three NFL seasons. He has never started a game before.
--RB Ryan Williams is listed on the depth chart as the backup to Rashard Mendenhall, but Arians isn't saying which back will actually fill that role in St. Louis. Arians has said he's comfortable using any of the other three backs, too, including Alfonso Smith and rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington.
--OLB John Abraham is listed as a third weak-side linebacker on the depth chart, which is technically correct. But he's really a pass-rushing specialist. The Cardinals will bring him in on obvious throwing downs and let him rush from a two-point stance. Abraham saw limited playing time in the preseason but that was just to limit his exposure to injury.
--CB Patrick Peterson will contribute in all three phrases against the Rams. Peterson will play defense, wide receiver and return punts. After returning four punts for touchdowns as a rookie, Peterson did not score last year as a returner. His average fell from 15.9 yards a return to 8.4 yards. His longest return was 29 yards. In 2011, he had returns of 99, 89, 82 and 90.
--TE Rob Housler (ankle) has not practiced in two weeks and isn't likely to play against the Rams. That might limit the amount of time the Cardinals use two-tight end sets, a big part of coach Bruce Arians' offense. The healthy tight ends are Jim Dray, Kory Sperry and D.C. Jefferson. They are not receiving threats.
--RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) practiced this week and is expected to start against the Rams. Mendenhall has been limited by knee tendinitis throughout the preseason, but coach Bruce Arians has said his running back was held out only as a precaution.
GAME PLAN: Matching the Rams' toughness will be a concern. Last year, the Rams were more physical than the Cardinals. Offensively, Arians always wants to throw deep. The goal is to do it at least five times. If tight end Rob Housler plays, the Cardinals will try to get him matched up down the middle with a safety or linebacker. Defensively, the Cardinals had some trouble with stopping the run in the preseason. Having inside linebacker Daryl Washington out with a suspension also hurts. Look for the Cardinals to dial up blitzes against Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and count on their secondary holding up.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams DE Chris Long vs. Cardinals OT Eric Winston -- Long has excellent skills and goes hard every play. Winston is a competent pro but he's with his third team in three years. He has to be able to hold off Long.
Rams CB Cortland Finnegan vs. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald plays three receiver positions, and the Cardinals will use motion to try to set up favorable matchups. He's played well against the Rams many times. Finnegan is a rugged player who sometimes takes receivers out of the game with his tough play. That's not likely to happen with Fitzgerald.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Carson Palmer. Backups - Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley
Coach Bruce Arians is convinced Palmer is still among the elite players at his position. But Cardinals have been down this road before. Palmer will become the seventh quarterback to start for Arizona since Kurt Warner retired after the 2009 season. The failure to replace Warner cost coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves their jobs. Palmer seems to fit Arians' philosophy of standing in the pocket and throwing deep. He's not going to run, and Arians doesn't believe in using his quarterbacks that way. While Palmer might not be what he once as, his health is vital to the Cardinals chances. Stanton has been a career backup, and Lindley didn't impress in four starts and a six appearances a year ago. He did show improvement in the off-season, however.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Rashard Mendenhall. Backups - Ryan Williams, Stepfan Taylor, Andre Ellington, Alfonso Smith.
Mendenhall missed parts of the last two seasons due to injuries, a big reason he was a free agent. Arians coached him with the Steelers and is confident in Mendenhall. Coaches have other options, however. Williams has tremendous ability but he injuries kept him from playing much his first two seasons. The team drafted Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington. Those four backs show a common trait: versatility. They supposedly can catch and pass block, as well as run. Smith and Powell could creep into the mix, especially given Mendenhall's and Williams' recent injury history. There is no fullback on the roster; Arians doesn't believe in them. The Cardinals will use tight ends when they need a blocker from the backfield.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Rob Housler. Backups - Jim Dray, Kory Sperry, D.C. Jefferson.
Housler caught 45 passes last season but no one was satisfied with that production. That tells us how much talent Housler has. He is fast and has good hands. Quarterbacks consistently missed him on big-play opportunities, and Housler had some dropped passes, too. Arians loves using two tight ends, and if Palmer can stay healthy, Housler could have a breakout season. Depth is a problem. Dray is a serviceable backup who will be challenged by Sperry. Jefferson, a seventh-round pick, is a project. He's has great athleticism but is just learning the position.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd. Backups - Andre Roberts, Jaron Brown.
Floyd, in his second year, was impressive in spring and summer workouts and moves into the No. 2 role. Roberts drops down to No. 3 but he'll play a lot. He played well last season, and helps give the Cardinals a promising trio. After that, however, there are concerns. There is no experience. Brown, a rookie free agent from Clemson, stood out in the spring and summer. Taylor has shown ability, and Brown, a rookie, impressed. He has elite speed, which the team needed.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Levi Brown, LG Daryn Colledge, C Lyle Sendlein, RG Paul Fanaika, RT Eric Winston. Backups - T Nate Potter, G/C Mike Gibson, G/T Paul Fanaika, G Earl Watford, T Bradley Sowell.
This group has been heavily criticized over the past few years, often with justification. With guard Jonathan Cooper, the seventh overall draft pick, out for the year with a fractured leg, it's questionable if there has been much of an upgrade. Brown is back from a torn triceps that kept him out all season. Sendlein is back from a knee injury that caused him to miss the last five games of 2012. Colledge had switched from left to right guard after Cooper was drafted and he's now back on the left side. Paul Fanaika, who was out of the NFL in 2012, is the starter on the right side. Right tackle Eric Winston should be an upgrade over Massie, who improved over the second half last season. Arians also upgraded the way the unit has coached. For the first time in years, the Cardinals have two line coaches: coordinator Harold Goodwin and assistant Larry Zierlein. There is less downtime at practice and young players are receiving more personalized attention.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE Darnell Dockett, NT Dan Williams, RE Calais Campbell. Backups - T/E Frostee Rucker, T/E Ronald Talley, E Matt Shaughnessy, T Alameda Ta'amu.
Dockett believes the change in coordinators, from Ray Horton to Todd Bowles, will help him return to elite status. Horton preferred his ends to use two-gap technique, and Dockett felt that kept him from making big plays. Bowles prefers one-gap, which should allow Dockett to use his explosives. But Dockett also is 32, an age when most players are in decline. Campbell is the best lineman on the team, and perhaps its second best player, behind Fitzgerald. Williams continues to battle weight problems and this season, his fourth, is critical for him. He suffered two ankle injuries in training. He needs to prove himself. He will have competition from Rucker and Talley. Shaughnessy and Rucker are quality backups so the Cardinals should be able to keep their starters fresh.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - LOLB Sam Acho, ILB Karlos Dansby, ILB Jasper Brinkley, ROLB Lorenzo Alexander. Backups - OLB John Abraham, ILB Daryl Washington (suspended), OLB Matt Shaughnessy, OLB Alex Okafor, ILB Kevin Minter.
Washington is the best player in the unit, but he is suspended for the first month for violating the substance abuse policy. He could face more trouble depending upon the outcome of two assault charges stemming from an alleged domestic incident. Dansby, a free agent, was signed to fill Washington's spot, and the two could play together when Washington returns. Brinkley was signed to play in the middle, but was available for a reason. He reportedly missed too many tackles while with the Vikings. Alexander is an excellent special teams player and he's being given a chance to start. In passing situations, he could be replaced by Abraham or Shaughnessy. Young players such as Minter, Okafor and Nash given the team some depth.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Patrick Peterson, CB Jerraud Powers, FS Rashad Johnson, SS Yeremiah Bell. Backups: CB Antoine Cason, CB Jamell Fleming, CB Javier Arenas, CB/S Justin Bethel, S Tyrann Mathieu, S Tony Jefferson.
Peterson is the only returning starter in the secondary. He's emerging as one of the NFL's best corners, and the Cardinals likely will continue playing him against the best receiver. The other spot has been upgraded. Powers is the starter for now, and he's being challenged by Cason, another free agent signee. Arenas was obtained in a trade, and along with Mathieu, gives the team plenty of options in nickel and dime packages. The biggest concerns are at safety. The team cut starters Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, and replaced them with Johnson and Bell. Johnson is coming off his best season in four years, but he's never been a full-time starter. Bell has a ton of experience but he's 35. There isn't proven talent behind them. Matthieu, a third-round pick, is small (5-9, 207) and Bethel, in his second season, is still raw. He might be a better cornerback than safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - K Jay Feely, P Dave Zastudil, LS Mike Leach, PR Patrick Peterson, KR Andre Ellington, Javier Arenas, PR/KR Tyrann Mathieu.
Feely (37), Zastudil (34) and Leach (36) are at an age when most teams look to replace them. That's not likely to happen, and all three are coming off good seasons. Peterson's punt return numbers dropped off steeply last season from his rookie year, but he's still dynamic. So is Mathieu, and he could be used to give Peterson more of a rest.