WR Anquan Boldin (Streeter Lecka/Getty)
The Cardinals return to divisional play this week for the first time since a 23-13 win against San Francisco in Week 1. Sunday’s matchup in St Louis kicks off a crucial three-game stretch in which Arizona faces three straight NFC West foes. Brad Wilbricht continues his weekly scouting report, this time previewing the St Louis Rams.
After parting ways with former head coach Scott Linehan, the Rams have rallied to win two of their last three games. St. Louis got off to a horrendous start losing their first four outings, being outscored 147-33 in the process. However, since Jim Haslett was put in charge, they’ve managed to knock of the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins.
Although he continues to be plagued by injuries, RB Steven Jackson remains the center piece of the Rams’ offense. He’s rushed for 508 yards and four touchdowns on 121 carries this season. Jackson missed last week’s game against the New England Patriots and could miss a second consecutive game with a strained right quadriceps.
If Jackson is unable to go, backups Antonio Pittman and Travis Minor will fill in at running back. Neither player features the ability of Jackson and would be much easier for the Cardinals’ defense to contain. Jackson’s absence also effects St Louis’ passing game as he’s currently the team’s second leading receiver.
The emergence of rookie WR Donnie Avery has helped the Rams’ offense rebound from a dismal early season performance. QB Marc Bulger threw for a season-high 301 yards last week but has continued to be inaccurate at times. Prior to 2007, Bulger completed over 60 percent of his passes each season but has dipped below that number in both of the previous two years.
WR Donnie Avery
While veteran WR Tory Holt’s production has been limited, Avery has burst on to the scene. Avery has reeled in 10 passes for 218 yards and two scores in the Rams’ past two games. Meanwhile, Holt is off to arguably the worst start of his 10-year career, totaling only 26 receptions for 289 yards.
The Cardinals’ secondary failed to keep Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith in check last week and could have similar problems defending Avery. Avery is an explosive receiver with the ability to get behind opposing defenses. Holt has been an excellent big-play target over the course of his career but may be delegated to a possession role given Avery’s recent success.
On defense, rookie DE Chris Long has been as good as advertised after being selected with the second overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Long has already racked up four sacks and 25 tackles on the season. In addition to Long, DE Leonard Little has wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Little leads the Rams with 4.5 sacks and has two forced fumbles.
Arizona has seen limited success on the ground this year but should find more room to run against a suspect St Louis rush defense. The Rams are allowing 152 yards per game rushing and nearly five yards per carry. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt could turn to rookie RB Tim Hightower in hopes of jump starting the Cardinals’ rushing attack. Hightower will likely see an expanded role as Edgerrin James has been a non-factor in recent weeks.
While the Rams have struggled to defend the run, they’ve been equally as bad against the pass. That doesn’t bode well going up against Arizona’s pass happy offense. St Louis is giving up 234 passing yards per contest and just under eight yards per pass attempt. Look for QB Kurt Warner and the Cardinals’ receiving corps to have a big day through the air.
Brad Wilbricht can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org