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Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams: Preview and Pick
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams: Preview and Pick
The NFL season kicks off this weekend and the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams will feature two teams that are looking for respect. The Rams and the Cardinals both have teams that have plenty of talent, yet they are both being overlooked in favor of Super Bowl favorites, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. The winner will hope to change the minds of people who have already ruled them out.
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams Odds
The point spread opened for this game with the Rams as (-5.5) point favorites. That line has been slowly bet down leading up to kickoff and can be found as low as (-4) at several top rated online sportsbooks. One of the reasons this number is getting lower is due to the inspired play of the Cardinals in the preseason.
The Cardinals brought in veteran signal caller Carson Palmer in the offseason and they believe they have finally found the quarterback that they have been lacking over the years. Palmer has already built chemistry with super star wide out Larry Fitzgerald who is expected to have a resurgence this season. The Cardinals have also had some early output from young wide out Michael Floyd who has been a great compliment to Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals also bolstered their defense and special teams by bringing in Tyrann Mathieu, also known as the Honey Badger. These additions could make the Cardinals a team to respect in the NFC West. The Rams are hoping that they are the team that will get noticed.
Head coach Jeff Fisher has built up the offense around quarterback Sam Bradford. Fisher started with protection by nabbing Jake Long from the Dolphins to play on the offensive line. He then moved up in the draft to nab Tavon Austin. This offense is now on par with an already stout defense.
The football betting trends for this game reveal several great angles for this match up. The Cardinals are 5-1 against the spread (ATS) in their last 6 games in Week 1 and 5-2 ATS in their last 7 games in September.
The Rams are 7-0 ATS in their last seven against the NFC West and 5-1 ATS in their last 6 games overall, but they are just 18-37-2 ATS in their last 57 games in September. Both of these teams are eager to make a statement in week one, but only one team can emerge with the victory.
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams Pick
With plenty of time to go before the start of the regular season, I will wait to release my pick on this game until we get closer to game day.
Bruce Arians has a reputation as a bold play-caller who prefers a vertical-passing game because it can get you to the end zone a lot quicker than a horizontal one. Most good things, however, take time. And so it is with throwing deep. Offensive linemen have to pass-block longer. Tight ends often have to help. Backs must pick up the blitz. Quarterbacks must identify defenses and adjust protections.
The Cardinals weren’t good at any of those things a year ago, and when their quarterbacks weren’t overthrowing receivers, they were hitting the ground with alarming regularity. So while throwing deep to Larry Fitzgerald and company is a great idea, it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals can actually do it in games.
It was obvious to all last season that the Cardinals needed upgrades on the offensive line and at quarterback. So they traded for Carson Palmer, drafted guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round and signed tackle Eric Winston in free agency. With left tackle Levi Brown returning from a triceps injury, Arians wasn’t concerned about his offensive line.
This preseason might have changed that. Cooper is out for the year with a fractured leg, suffered in the third game. That’s forced Paul Fanaika, who was out of the NFL last year, into the starting lineup at guard. It’s comparable to what happened last season when Brown was hurt and D’Anthony Batiste started a game for the first time since 2007. The results were disastrous, though Batiste was playing a position (tackle) where he was more exposed than Fanaika (right guard) will be.
Even with that change, everyone concerned would feel more comfortable had Brown played well this preseason. He didn’t, especially in his last outing against the Chargers’ Dwight Freeney. Arians excused that performance by saying Freeney has given lots of tackles fits over the last decade and noting that the Cardinals did nothing with their scheme to help Brown. If it had been a regular-season game, the game plan might have included using tight ends and backs to help Brown.
That would be fine, as long as it’s a game here and there. If a tackle has to be helped every week, it reduces the number of options on Arians’ play-call sheet.
Palmer has talked often this preseason of the complexity of Arians’ offense, how it’s different from anything Palmer operated in his previous 10 years in the NFL. One difference is that Arians’ offense includes more deep-route combinations by receivers. Those can be slow to develop, and Palmer is not nimble enough to purchase time.
He’s not Andrew Luck and he’s not Ben Roethlisberger, the last two guys to run Arians’ system. And as mobile as Luck is, he took a beating a year ago. The Colts’ offensive line was decimated with injuries, and Luck was knocked down 122 times, more than any other quarterback in the league. That was a testament to his durability. It was proof the Colts weren’t very good up front. And it’s evidence that Arians didn’t back off much when it came throwing deep.
For the past two years, the Cardinals had an inexperienced offensive coordinator, Mike Miller, and there were complaints that Miller didn’t do enough to compensate for the team’s shortcomings up front. While former coach Ken Whisenhunt fired two defensive coordinators, he kept Miller in the same job.
Palmer also has a decade of experience to call upon. A smart quarterback often is his own best protector, identifying where pressure is likely to come from, and getting rid of the ball in time.
But don’t expect the Cardinals to be content to dink and dunk this year, no matter who is blocking, catching and throwing. If you want to see that type of game, watch tailgaters toss bean bags into a hole.
Arians will be inside, telling everyone to go deep.
Middle linebacker and Rams’ team leader James Laurinaitis is keeping an eye on his young teammates these days. And that’s quite a chore, considering the 53-man roster includes 12 rookies and 14 second-year players.
And that doesn’t include running back Chase Reynolds, a third-year pro who has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game or second-year running back Isaiah Pead, who will sit out Sunday’s opener against the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome while serving a one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
“I believe we’re better. On paper we are, but we all know how that goes,” said Laurinaitis, a fifth-year pro out of Ohio State, following a recent practice at Rams Park. “Quite frankly, I’ll bet there are 32 teams out there that feel pretty good about their chances right now. We seem to be better, but what I look for now is the whole overall focus and sense of urgency we have to continue getting better day in and day out.”
He continued: “Are we as a team committed to doing the little things heading into game week and especially on game day? I think we are. This team is young, but it’s also very hungry and it’s good to be around all that young energy.”
Laurinaitis has seen a lot in his time with the Rams. The team finished 1-15 in his rookie campaign and flirted with winning a playoff berth while finishing 7-9 in 2010. The Rams slipped back to 2-14 in 2011 before showing promise with a 7-8-1 finish a year ago in the first season under the direction of general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher.
In four seasons, Laurinaitis has been as steady as they come, starting every game of his professional career and leading the team in tackles in all four seasons. He also is effective against the pass with nine sacks, seven interceptions and 26 passes defended.
Laurinaitis has learned what it takes to play in the NFL and how to conduct himself as a pro. And he does not hesitate to share that information with the young players around him. He tries to stay available to all teammates, but his focus is a group of linebackers featuring first-round draft choice Alec Ogletree and rookie free agents Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart.
But Laurinaitis’ help does not always revolve around the Xs and Os. “I’m big on the things that don’t take talent to be successful,” the 26-year-old said. “In the NFL, there’s talent everywhere. So what are the things that don’t require a 40 time or a bench press that can help you get over the top? There are things you can control — your attitude when you come in to work, your work ethic, how much film you watch, your communication on the field — those are things that don’t require God’s gifts, but believe me, they definitely make a difference.”
One of the key’s to Laurinatis’ success is pre-game preparation, and that’s something he has stressed with the young linebackers. “I talked to Alec and Ray Ray, Bates today after practice and told them that if you don’t have a great feel for Arizona by the time you come back here on Tuesday, we’re already behind. That’s just the reality of the NFL,” Laurinaitis said. “Personally, I like to stay a couple of days ahead, so that when we start going over things in practice, there are no surprises.”
Ryan Williams knows he hasn’t been in the NFL that long and only has been around so many coaches in his football life. But the running back thinks about what new coach Bruce Arians has brought with his offense, and Williams bursts with optimism. “I’ve never been around a coach that understands offensive football as much as B.A.,” Williams said. “It’s like he’s a genius almost. He knows where everybody is supposed to be, anything and everything. He knows what will make you better at doing it.”
In many ways, the entire Cardinals’ overhaul this offseason began with the need to energize the offense. Arians, with his background as an offensive coordinator, was hired. The team traded for quarterback Carson Palmer, signed new running back Rashard Mendenhall, upgraded its offensive line – all in an effort to avoid a repeat of last season, when points were often much too hard to come by.
Often during the offseason, the learning curve was cited. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, among others, was trying to learn multiple positions. Arians would talk about the mental errors that needed to be erased. In the preseason, the coach shook his head at struggles in the red zone.
As the games that count approach, however, confidence is obvious. “I don’t think anything is ever completely automatic,” Palmer said. “But I’m as comfortable as I can be to this day with putting this offense in back in April.”
Palmer knows the offense won’t look the same against the Rams in St. Louis Sunday as it will, for instance, in Jacksonville in mid-November. The offense is all installed, though. And as Arians has been telling his team often, “We’ll throw it against the wall and just keep throwing it against the wall and see what sticks.”
Some of the preseason hiccups will be shoved to the side, Arians said, because instead of digesting 300 plays for a game there will be 80 or 90 specific to each week’s game plan. The narrowing of the focus can only help.
“When it is condensed like that, you can play fast instead of always having to think,” wide receiver Michael Floyd said. “I can just react now, play faster. I think this offense works well for me.”
The Rams have a defense that is fast, with a pass rush that piled up 11 sacks in two games against Arizona last year (including nine in the game at St. Louis.) But that was a lifetime ago, with a group that ended up scoring just 250 points all season (and 48 came in one game, against the Lions.)
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the Cardinals have “settled into a difficult scheme to defend” and if the passing game alone can create some fear throwing to Floyd and Fitzgerald, the offense will be much further ahead of where they were.
“We are excited as a defense knowing we have a quarterback who can put points on the board,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said.
“Coaching can only go so far,” Williams said. “But if we execute, I feel we have the players to make (Arians’) visions come alive on the field.”
For the second year in a row, the St. Louis Rams enter a season with the league’s youngest roster. It’s not that there’s an award for being the youngest in the league or something, it’s simply the way the Rams have gone about rebuilding a roster that was one of the league’s oldest in the not-so-distant past.
Focusing their efforts on the NFL draft and finding hidden gems in undrafted free agency or on other teams’ practice squads, the Rams have begun a youth movement that permeates the roster.
Entering Sunday’s opener against Arizona, the average age of the Rams’ 53-man roster is 24.98. Of the 53 players on the roster, 28 are in their first or second season.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the team this year is how that youth will perform on a big stage. The first response comes against the Cardinals, but if it doesn’t pan out, the Rams don’t plan to point to it as a reason for not getting the job done.
“No, that’s not an excuse,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’re young, but that’s not an excuse as far as what takes place on Sundays. We’re going to line people up because they’re ready to play. I think it’s a promising future for us, but I’m not concerned about it.”
Asked if he likes working with kids, Fisher pointed out that he doesn’t view any of his players in that vein. I raised three, but no, these are young men,” Fisher said. “They’re not kids, and they’re going to be ready to play.”
Make no mistake, just because Fisher and the Rams say they aren’t concerned with their relative youth doesn’t mean they are expecting everything to go perfect from day one. With so many first- and second-year players – the expected starting lineup will have seven total – the Rams know that mistakes will be made. A big part of the maturation of young players is making those errors and learning from them.
“Will they make mistakes? Sure,” linebacker James Laurinaitis, himself a four-year veteran, said. “All young players make mistakes. Heck, I still make mistakes. The key is that you make the other team make more than you make and you win a football game.”
On the flip side of that is a youthful exuberance that can manifest itself in positive ways. The Rams improved in 2012 to win seven games, up from two the year before behind the league’s youngest roster.
“Frankly, they bring an energy and a youth about them that I think is a great thing, kind of a hunger,” Laurinaitis said. “They’re just sponges right now, they are willing to learn.”
The question for this week will be how the young Rams react to the stage that comes with opening day in the NFL. As Laurinaitis points out, the stage itself shouldn’t be too big for a group of players that spent many Saturdays playing in front of crowds even larger than what will reside in the Edward Jones Dome.
“College football has gotten so big and a lot of these guys were big-time recruits and stuff, so they have played in [front of] huge crowds,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s what I try to talk to these guys about. You get in the dome, it’s really loud, Seattle is really loud, but you are adding 40,000 people to the stadiums in college. I said, ‘You guys have been through these moments.’ You just can’t make the game too big. It’s still football, you have prepared really hard. You’re ready.”
Making matters more interesting is the difference in age between the Rams and Cardinals. Arizona is the league’s third-oldest team, with an average age of 26.79. It’s doubtful that the Cardinals will have many butterflies in their stomachs when kickoff comes.
Having a young team doesn’t normally reveal itself in terms of talent or speed. In fact, it can be something of an advantage in those areas. More likely, it can lead to mental mistakes like a missed sight adjustment by a receiver working with a quarterback or a young defensive back getting caught staring into the backfield.
Little mistakes like that can lead to big plays that cost teams wins. At this point, the Rams are pot-committed to the youth movement, and they are just fine taking the good with the bad.
“Well, we have no choice,” Fisher said. “They’re going to play and they’re all going to improve. Unfortunately there’s going to be some growing pains with that. They haven’t played in a real game before and it will be a little more of a settling down things taking place as opposed to getting fired up and emotional to play. Take these reps, act like you’ve been there before and then get out there and make plays.”
This game will be a good one to watch as we figure out if Palmer can make the Cards a contender. While they will be better it is the Rams that have made all the right moves. Better O-Line for Bradford and more weapons on offense which will compliment an already impressive defense. The Cards will be better but not on day one.