The Arizona Cardinals (7-5) may be the biggest surprise team of the 2013 NFL season. After dropping their opener to the Rams in ugly fashion, they quietly got a handle on things that had them ranked among the worst teams prior to the start of the season. Everyone knew the Arizona defense would be strong, and after middle linebacker Daryl Washington returned from his four game suspension, this unit dialed it up a notch. But it's been their offense that's done some damage most didn't foresee. The addition of Carson Palmer in the off season got mixed reviews, yet the veteran former first overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft has made a difference. After several pain-filled years with one of the worst quarterback merry-go-rounds in recent memory, Palmer stepped into Bruce Arians' "fling it down the field" offense and made it work.
With four games to go, Palmer has a respectable 3189 passing yards on 436 attempts. He has 19 touchdowns to go along with 17 interceptions, which is more telling of the kind of risks Arians is willing to take to open up the field, than it is an indictment of Palmer. What I love about this, is how it tells opposing teams: Prepare for anything! Arians made Andrew Luck look like a star, simply by opening up the playbook and not limiting the rookie to short, high percentage passes. It wasn't about stretching the field, as much as it was opening up the entire 100 x 50 yard patch of lawn to what was possible. It worked for Arians in Indianapolis, and has definitely been a deciding factor for the Cardinals.
Future NFL Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald is having a good season, and second year wide receiver Malcolm Floyd has come into his own. Between them, they have 1538 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns and a 14.1 yards per catch average. The 109 catches between them are almost evenly split: Floyd - 54, "Fitz" - 55.
The interesting part of the Cardinals' offense is at running back. The off season signing of Rashard Mendenhall seemed to be a gamble then - and still does - with his injury penchant. Here is where 2013 6th round draft pick Andre Ellington stepped in to create a formidable one-two running back punch. On October 27th, Ellington played the Atlanta Falcons like a piano, to the tune of 154 yards and a touchdown. Eyes quickly turned Arizona's way with the rise of a running game, and it's a big reason why the Cardinals are more than a little alive in the post season hunt now.
The Rams discovered Zac Stacy a bit too late to really matter. The rookie out of Vanderbilt has the starting job locked up, with an able second in undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham. Stacy has been impressive, with 696 rushing yards in 10 games, and a 4.4 yard per carry average. His "second level" ability - to make yardage after initial contact - has made him a solid player, and one defensive coordinators need to game plan. His coming out party in a losing effort against Tennessee - 178 yards in total offense and two touchdowns - preceded a 134 rushing yard performance against Seattle the following week. Solid in pass protection, he and Benny Cunningham could be the running back duo for the Rams into the foreseeable future.
The St. Louis Rams are eerily similar to the Cardinals in many respects. Both teams started the 2013 season as the proverbial red-headed stepchildren to the "Richie Rich" boys: San Francisco and Seattle. The Rams and Cardinals have spent the this entire season trying to find a running game, and they both lean heavily on rookie or second year players. The NFC West is the home of the most tenacious defenses in the NFL: Seattle - #1, San Francisco - #5, Arizona - #7, and St. Louis - #18. While the Rams trail their division foes in most categories, the one that should make Arizona nervous is the one where St. Louis excels: quarterback sacks. The Cardinals aren't far behind the #5 Rams in sacks - ranking #11. It would appear Carson Palmer and Kellen Clemens are in for a rough Sunday, as are their respective offensive lines. Injuries have hit both teams across their offensive lines, with the Rams taking the latest hit losing veteran center Scott Wells in the San Francisco game.
Key factor: The team who protects their quarterback this Sunday, and establishes a running game, will win this game going away. ( Note: Andre Ellington is listed as questionable for this Sunday)
Each of these teams have undeniable weaknesses. For the Rams, it's their run defense - ranked #15 in the NFL, versus the Cardinal's #4 ranking against the run. For the Cardinals, their defense seems to have a problem defending tight ends. The issue began in week #1 against the Rams, when Jared Cook torched Arizona with 7 catches for 141 yards and 2 touchdowns. The troubles have continued, so look for Jared Cook to get loads of attention this Sunday.
''He's a good tight end,'' Arizona safety Rashad Johnson said. ''I don't think he's as good as Jimmy Graham and (Rob) Gronkowski. Those guys can do different things as far as running routes, but he's definitely a big guy that can run. I don't think he's a great route runner, just down the field, vertical threat, he definitely can change the field position. That's the way they use him. They use him very well doing that.''
Key factor: Jared Cook has had a couple stellar games for the Rams, but nothing close to what was envisioned when he signed his high dollar free agent contract this past off season. In a physical game, against a top notch secondary headed by Patrick Peterson and surprise rookie Tyrann Mathieu - who plays safety and corner back in nickle and dime defensive packages - Cook needs to be near the top of Kellen Clemens check down tree. By hitting him in the 6 to 10 yard range, it will move back one of the better linebacker corps in the NFL, opening up the running game.
Coaching is the silent "key player" every week, but it gets little notice. Week after week, I've propounded the need for the Rams to open their offense up. This Sunday, the team who "grounds-'n-pounds" the best, will win this game. The Rams' Brian Schottenheimer could be in his most comfortable match up of the year, so don't look for a Tavon Austin to get more active in the offense this week. This game will be for the "big boy" receivers, and they'll be cruising the pain-filled middle of the field. Brian Quick is my sleeper player to watch for the Rams. Bruce Arians will plan this game like he does every game: Wide open. Carson Palmer is nursing a injured elbow from a strip sack in the Eagles game, so deep passes may be rare, but they'll happen. Look for interception opportunities to open up for the Rams' secondary late in the game, especially if Palmer is hit repeatedly early on.
Jeff Fisher and his staff need to call on physical, bullish play, more than trickery. This game will be about controlling the line of scrimmage, so the word "slugfest" comes to mind. Two and three tight end sets are going to be on the field for both teams, as they try to stem the pass rushing onslaughts headed for Clemens and Palmer. Little bubble screens will happen, but I'd look more for tight ends in motion, checking a defensive end before veering off into the flat for quick 3 to 5 yard passes. Getting the outside linebackers of both teams to start cheating out will be on the minds of Jeff Fisher and Bruce Arians. It will open up the defensive end - tackle gap in the run game, and cause players like Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Calais Campbell to hesitate and respect the run.
Arizona's defense is going to absolutely pound the middle of the Rams' offensive line. This means Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham better have their pass blocking hats on. Daryl Washington - who in my opinion, is the best linebacker in the NFL - will be attacking the Rams guards, but he'll have center Tim Barnes squarely in his sights. The middle of the line - on both sides of the ball - is going to be a battleground, bordering on the edge of a out-of-control brawl.
Key factor: This game is going to test both coaching staffs' abilities to maintain control and tempo. Roster depth may play a role here too. The Rams depth on the defensive line may be a sleeper key to winning this game, especially if it's as physical as I think it will be.