The Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams are two teams that have exceeded expectations through the first four weeks of the 2012 NFL season. Whereas both came in with huge question marks on offense, neither has really let their weaknesses on that side of the ball slow them down. Mind you, Arizona is 31st in the league in yardage per game. The Rams are 27th. Neither squad is lighting it up – but relatively solid showings by their defenses have balanced things out a bit.
The Cardinals have a mostly easy couple of weeks head of them, however, beginning on Oct. 29, they will have a three-game stretch where they play the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons. Similarly, St. Louis is going to get the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers after next week’s presumed cake walk versus the Miami Dolphins. Both of these clubs are going to have some tough outings ahead, so each win until then really, really matters.
With that in mind, here are three things to watch for from each squad heading into tonight.
1. Can the offensive line protect Kevin Kolb?
Everyone knew that Arizona’s offensive line was weak heading into this year, but it became official last week when they gave up eight sacks to the Miami Dolphins. The Rams are 26th in the league with only six sacks on the year, but they could easily end up having a breakout game tonight. If the line protects Kolb and gives him time to throw, it will go a long way in minimizing his mistakes.
2. Can Patrick Peterson replicate last year’s magic?
Patrick Peterson’s versatility has been a pretty hot topic in recent weeks, but all the Cardinals really need for him tonight -- on the returns side of things -- is a showing similar to the one he offered up last year. Against the Rams in 2011, he returned two punts – one for 99 yards and one for 80. He hasn’t been especially impressive on returns thus far this year, but (in theory) he has to break out of his funk at some point.
3. Can the running game get going?
Arizona averages 2.7 rushing yards per game – good for 27th in the NFL. They’re 19th in total rushing touchdowns with a grand total of two. This makes Kevin Kolb’s job a lot harder than it should be. The Rams give up the seventh most rushing yards in the league to their opponents, but it won’t matter if the Cardinals don’t come up with a way to exploit that weakness.
St. Louis Rams
1. Can they protect the ball?
The Cardinals lead the league in fumble recoveries with seven total. They also rank third in takeaways with 10. St. Louis has been pretty good about protecting the ball this year (one fumble), but Arizona’s defense is going to do everything it can to raise that number up a bit.
2. How does Steven Jackson look?
The Rams average 3.7 yards per carry – good for 20th in the NFL. Steven Jackson, specifically, averages 3.3 yards per carry. Arizona has a middle-of-the-road rushing defense, so the openings will definitely be there, but Jackson has to be able to take advantage of them.
3. Can Sam Bradford do some damage versus the Arizona defense?
For all the hype, Arizona’s defense gave up over 400 yards to Ryan Tannehill last week. Unfortunately, the Rams only put up 287 yards per game – good for 27th in the league. Sam Bradford needs to get hot fast in this one, because if the Cardinals get out to a quick start, it’s going to be very hard for him to lead the Rams back. (Yes, even at home.)