Charles from Revenge of the Birds and I shared some thoughts on key matchups for the game tomorrow. Here's the first round, couple more coming soon.
Donnie Avery vs. Roderick Hood
Charles: I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the Cardinals put their #1 corner on Avery. Avery has been improving each week and is a threat to get deep and score, every time the ball is snapped. Hood's been playing very well in recent weeks and he's been excelling in press coverage. He was able to quiet Terrell Owens (4 for 36) and despite posting big numbers, he played pretty well against Steve Smith (5 for 117 and 2 TDs). If Hood had been able to make a tackle on a short pass, Smith's numbers might have looked much more like 5 receptions for 67 and 1 TD. Hood will be in for the same type of test this week though when he lines up against high flying rookie, Donnie Avery. Avery's coming off his best game of the season and he's settling in as the Rams' big play threat. I look for Hood to try and get physical with Avery at the line of scrimmage and try to disrupt the timing between him and Bulger. The Cardinals will likely have to keep a safety deep though because if Avery fights through a jam quickly, he can put six on the board very quickly. Avery's also got the ability to take every short pass to pay dirt so the entire secondary will have to concentrate on sound tackling.
VanRam: I like this matchup because, if the Cards do put Hood on Avery, that frees up a left out-feeling Torry Holt to contend with their, um, lesser d-backs. Torry Holt, folks may remember, is a seven time Pro Bowl wide receiver. Back to Avery (sorry, Torry). Charles, you've explained perfectly why Donnie Avery is such a weapon for the Rams. His speed can separate him from all but the fastest corners in the game and can keep him on his routes even after some minor entanglement by defenders as he comes off the line. And any time a safety is all that remains between Avery and the end zone...well, touchdown Rams. Hood will have to use some physicality covering Avery to take away his speed. However, that tactic puts him at risk for pass interference penalties. As a matter of fact, I think Avery will be quite good at drawing those penalties as teams start to pay him more mind in coverage. One last point, with a safety deep and and a full-time corner on Avery, the Rams should be able to move the chains via shorter passes to the middle. Holt will have a role in that, but watch for Keenan Burton to play a role in keeping the drives going. Stretching the field, opening up holes, catching long balls for deep strikes...the Donnie Avery pick is paying off many times over.
Chris Long vs. Mike Gandy
Charles: Long is coming off his best game of the season as well and he's the type of guy who can give Gandy some problems. Long really isn't a speed rusher and he isn't really a power player either, but he does have the physical tools to do either on a given play. Long makes plays by never letting up and he's totaled four sacks already this season. Long will be coming from Warner's blind side so he'll have the chance to wreak havoc if he can get some pressure. Warner has always had problems with fumbles when pressure comes from his blind side and defenders swipe at the ball. Gandy has played very well this season and he hasn't gotten abused like some of his other offensive lineman, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a back chipping Long occasionally. In the running game, Gandy will have to stick with Long until the whistle blows because he's got the motor and athleticism to get away from blockers and make plays down the field.
VanRam: With all flashy 60 yard TDs, Avery's been poster child for the Rams 2008 draft, but Chris Long's emergence can no longer be ignored. He was the second overall pick for a reason, and only the most optimistic Rams fans had him pegged for 9 sacks on the season, his current pace. This is a great matchup, for the Rams, whose game plan has to center around keeping the Cardinals passing game in check. Rams fans know as well as anybody about Kurt Warner's quick, surgical-like strikes to receivers and just how damaging that can be. We also know about his fumblitis, and the pass rush has to star in this game for the Rams to have a chance. Long has a good matchup and with Arizona's TE situation, I suspect the Gridbirds will have to use a FB or a WR to keep Warner's blind side protected. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, DE Leonard Little looks like he might play this week and he'll require airtight blocking to keep Warner upright.
Those are just two key matchups. Check back later for thoughts on Fakhir Brown vs. Larry Fitzgerald and Steven Jackson vs. Gabe Watson.