When the St. Louis Rams take the field for their 2013 NFL season opener late Sunday afternoon at the Edward Jones Dome, they are likely to find out that their “Dome Opener” opponent — the longtime NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals — look a lot different than they did last season.
The Big Red no longer feature big name offensive and defensive stars like running back Beanie Wells, free safety Kerry Rhodes, and strong safety and longtime Rams nemesis Adrian Wilson.
Arizona also has a new head coach in former Indianapolis interim coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, a new quarterback in former No. 1 draft pick and Pro Bowler Carson Palmer, and a whole new outlook within its organization — even if most experts believe the Cardinals are destined to finish last in the NFC West again.
All-world wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is still the leader of the offense, and the Big Red still have one of the most talented defensive line units in the league. So regardless of the low expectations, the fact is Arizona will present a formidable challenge for the Rams on opening day.
Arizona on Offense
For the first month of the season last year, the Big Red was the surprise of the league, with a 4-0 record and an offense that averaged 22.8 points a game and made all the clutch plays in what was a truly exciting September in Arizona.
Then came a Thursday night game in St. Louis, when the Rams just took the Cardinals apart. They bottled up Wells and Fitzgerald. They baffled Rhodes, Wilson, and the rest of the defense. And they reminded then-QB Kevin Kolb that he was Kevin Kolb and not Joe Montana, and basically set the blueprint for a terrible rest of the season for Arizona.
So this season, one of the first moves Arians made was to get rid of Kolb and bring in Palmer, who despite playing for a moribund Oakland Raiders team last year, still threw for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns.
With that kind of production this year, and receivers like the irrepressible Fitzgerald and speedsters Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd on the other end of Palmer’s throws, Arizona could have a whole lot of fun when it’s their turn to have the ball this year.
The Big Red also brought in free agent Rashard Mendenall, a former Arians favorite when they were both in Pittsburgh, who won a Super Bowl with the Steelers as a rookie in 2008 and rushed for a career-high 1,273 yards in 2011.
The offensive line is going to be a problem for Arizona, though.
That unit flat-out stunk last year, and even with signing Eric Winston in the offseason and drafting the mammoth Jonathan Cooper in April, the Cardinals don’t figure to be very good when it comes to blocking up front for Mendenhall and Palmer.
And just this week, Arizona learned that No. 1 draft pick Cooper will miss the entire season with a broken leg suffered during the preseason.
Arizona on Defense
The Cardinals have been one of the better 3-4 defensive teams in the league the last few years, and even with new coordinator Todd Bowles at the helm, Arizona figures to keep to the same scheme.
They may not blitz as much as former coordinator Ray Horton (now in Cleveland) liked to, but Bowles let his group have some fun during the preseason (Arizona went 3-1 in the exhibition season), and there’s no reason to believe they won’t play the same way once the games get real this weekend.
Up front the Cardinals have one of the best line units in the league, led by DT Darnell Dockett and DE Calais Campbell, and 6’2, 327-pound Dan Williams is a mountain of a man, who anchors the D-Line from his nose tackle spot.
At linebacker, Arizona might have one of the fastest groups in the league with Sam Acho, Karlos Dansby, Jasper Brinkley, and Lorenzo Alexander all expected to start this Sunday. And that’s not even including sack-master Daryl Washington, who’ll miss the first four games because of a league suspension following a domestic abuse incident last winter.
The most intriguing unit on the Arizona club without a doubt though will be its secondary, which is led by shutdown corner and punt return dynamo Patrick Peterson.
But the Cardinals also added former LSU standout Tyrann Mathieu through the draft, free agent signees Yeremiah Bell, Antoine Cason, and Jerraud Powers, and then traded for the speedy Javier Arenas to form a group specifically designed to battle the top receiving corps throughout the NFC West.
Mathieu, the player known as “The Honey Badger” during his college days, is an especially interesting acquisition. His size (5’9, 186 lbs.) indicates he should be a corner, but his toughness around the ball and exciting ball-hawking skills say he might be better suited to play safety.
The Rams lead the all-time series against the Cardinals 34-33-2 after winning both matchups between the teams last season.
Prior to that, Arizona had won 10 of the previous 11, including six in a row at the Edward Jones Dome.
The teams will meet again in Arizona on December 8, for a Week 14 matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
St. Louis has been dubbed one of the up-and-coming teams in the league this season, that may even be able to contend for NFC powerhouses San Francisco and Seattle for the division title.
So if the Rams are going to live up to those expectations, they need to win games against lower echelon teams like Arizona.
QB Sam Bradford has talked about how anxious he is to finally unwrap the brand new offensive toys St. Louis added during the offseason. But the fourth-year Rams signal-caller will get a strong test on opening day from an Arizona club that can really rush the passer up front and has a defensive secondary that may be capable of covering any and every receiver in the league.
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Cedric Williams is a freelance writer covering all things St. Louis. His work can be found on Examiner.com.