The Arizona Cardinals are not giving the St. Louis Rams any breaks with their injury report, which isn't highly unusual given that this is kickoff weekend. However, they will most likely be without RB Beanie Wells. How does that change the Rams game plan?
It doesn't. The Cardinals will be emphasizing the run heavily again this year, maybe more so since Kurt Warner packed it up for the broadcast booth. Tim Hightower will see most of the carries against the Rams this week, rather than their split running back performance from last year.
Hightower ripped the Rams for 110 yards on 14 carries in week 11 last year. In the teams' week 16 rematch he ran for 32 yards on 10 carries with one TD. Can Hightower be a feature back though? Here's what Pro Football Focus had say about the two backs in AZ:
We understood why Tim Hightower was in the game more due to his strong blitz-pickup skills (+1.3 rating), but there was a noticeable difference between Hightower or Beanie Wells running the ball.
Of course, with the running game you have to consider Arizona's o-line which I want to talk about a little more in-depth.
The big addition this year was G Alan Faneca, whose name conjures up more threat than his aging body. He was the weak link with the Jets' starting five last year; he blew six blocks last year. In their 2010 annual, Football Outsiders notes that the combo of Faneca and Levi Brown on the left side of the line give the Cardinals' left side "the most blown blocks of anyone in the league."
The success of the Cardinals running game last year had a lot to do with the running backs, specifically their use of two-back sets, where they averaged a half yard more per carry and more overall success than they did in single back formations. Again, from FO's 2010 annual, which you really have to buy if you don't already have it:
This points to blocking issues validated by the team’s rankings in Adjusted Line Yards (16th), Power Success (28th), and runs stuffed at the line (29th). That two-back success also creates the possibility of formation giveaways in the future — too much I-formation with an unthreatening quarterback gives an enemy defense every excuse to tee off.
Arizona's offensive line issues together with their running back situation gives the Rams defense the opportunity to set the tone.
The Rams run defense had an excellent preseason. Yes, that's not always indicative of how a unit will play in the regular season, but you'll recall that the Rams run defense was shredded in the preseason last year before struggling in the regular season as well.
Part of the problem, in my opinion, with the Rams run defense last year had to do with issues at linebacker, particularly on the outside. As 3k mentioned in his preview today, that looks like a much better unit than last year's, not only because of James Laurinaitis' growth as a player but improved personnel along side him.
In front of them, the Rams defensive line actually looks fairly well equipped to defend the run. The interior combo of Fred Robbins, Clifton Ryan and Darrell Scott was well regarded by the guys at Pro Football Focus in their preseason examination of all 32 teams' defensive lines, even if their pass rushing ability is still a question mark. The Rams also have defensive ends that do play well against the run. Chris Long has been strong in that department, even if it did take some time to get his blitzing game up to speed.
Any offense featuring Larry Fitzgerald can be dangerous, but the overall matchup between the Rams defense and the Cardinals offense, particularly with out Chris Wells, goes along way toward leveling out the playing field. If the Rams offense can stay on the field for a decent amount of time, it might be just enough of an advantage for the Rams.