For years under the Martz regime, the Rams considered special teams to be an afterthought. They may even have referred to one third of all plays in the game as (gasp!) the "Kicking Game." Under new coach Scott Linehan, special teams has been reborn as a priority. While they're currently suffering through a rash of injuries to their linebackers and linemen, St. Louis still possesses quality depth and should see significant improvement this season over seasons past. Their kick return duo of J.R. Reed and Kevin Curtis, while not spectacular, is at least fast. Fourth receiver Shaun McDonald handles the punt return duties.
The Cardinals still have some issues in coverage, with their lack of depth along the defensive line and linebackers, but plenty of quality depth at receiver. Their coverage unit should remain middle-of-the-road and not have a disastrous impact on this game, since the Rams don't possess a true "game breaker" in the return game. Troy Walters isn't going to commit a costly mistake, but he's also not going to create an electrifying return that sparks the offense. J.J. Arrington's job is most likely safe, seeing as how he finally got into the end zone on a return against the Vikings, but smart money says he doesn't get into the end zone again this year.
Scott Player is going to be his usual sure-footed self and Neil Rackers is slowly re-establishing himself as one of the more reliable kickers in the NFL. Add to that the ideal weather conditions inside the dome on Sunday, and it's highly unlikely that special teams will have a profound influence on the game.
What will influence the game is how the Cardinals prepare for and attack the Rams in a few key areas.
Where Arizona seems to have a decided advantage are their defensive line vs. the Rams offensive line and their receivers vs. the Rams cornerbacks. They need to exploit these match-ups in order to win.
By blitzing on early downs to disrupt the run game and playing a fairly vanilla Cover 2 defense on third down, they should be able to contain Steven Jackson by filling any and all possible gaps and running lanes and have their talented pass rushing ends fly by the overmatched St. Louis tackles in known passing situations (like third and long). If the Cardinals can win the early battle at the line of scrimmage, they should be able to take advantage of the mismatches their wide receivers represent.
In the passing game, they need to start fast with a lot of short passes to their talented (and large wide receivers). They should see soft coverage from the St. Louis cornerbacks early, since Arizona typically passes intermediate to long early in games. By getting the ball in the hands of their best playmakers, the Cardinals will be able to slow down the Rams pass rush, send their receivers up against the considerably smaller Rams defensive backs, and help Matt Leinart get into an early rhythm while not forcing him to stand in the pocket as his sub-standard offensive line allows the pocket to erode.
The key on both offense and defense is early success. If Jackson is able to read his blocks, hit the hole running full speed, and start running downhill, the undersized and soft middle of the Arizona defense will start to wear down. In addition, early scores by the Rams will take the wind out of the home crowd (which is still apt to be noisy with the roof closed and only the one home date under their belts) and that's one of the big advantages the Cardinals have in their back pocket as the game wears on. If the Cardinals are able to complete a number of passes in the short passing game early on, they'll hopefully start to wear down the back seven of the Rams defense. They'll also open things up for the running game and set up effective play-action passing (not just playaction for the sake of playaction) for the second and third quarters.
And, ultimately, Arizona is not stout enough along the offensive line to put a game away by "taking the air out of the ball," so they'll need to finish off the Rams with a few backbreaking long passes off play-action late in the third quarter or early in the fourth quarter.
By making the Rams one-dimensional on offense early and switching things up in the passing game, the Cardinals should win fairly easily.
They're playing a wounded opponent that has been up and down thus far this season. And they haven't been able to establish a lot of consistency in the passing game all season. This is above and beyond the fact that they're trying to be a between-the-tackles running team without having the proper personnel. Add in that their center is on injured reserve, their former third string guard is playing center, and All-World left tackle Orlando Pace is out for the season. Even if he does play, he won't be his usual dominant self.
Steven Jackson, Steven Jackson, Steven Jackson. That's the whole key to the game. Can they stop him? Will they stop him? Is it possible that he can be stopped, or merely contained? If the Cardinals are at least able to contain him (and I think they should be able to) this will be a pretty easy game for their opportunistic young defense as Marc Bulger starts to crack under the pressure.
And, even though they signed Will Witherspoon in the off-season and coordinator Jim Haslett has an excellent defensive mind, they are playing against a team that matches up very well against them from a talent, size, and scheme standpoint. While the defensive line may be able to get consistent pressure on Matt Leinart given his deficient offensive line, it still looks as though Leinart is able to make too many plays for it to matter much. On top of all that, the one bright spot for the Cardinals this season has been the improved play of their offensive line in the passing game. While the no sack performance against Detroit is unlikely to be repeated this year, it marked an important step in the line's development. They're very, very slowly coming together as a group and this is another important test for them.
However, the most important corner they have yet to turn is in the running game, and that means Edgerrin James needs to record his first 100 yard game as a Cardinal. Since St. Louis "boasts" the worst run defense in the NFL, he might actually have a shot at it. If Edge goes over the century mark, Arizona will win. It's too important a sign from the football gods to be ignored. I doubt he'll do it, but it'd be fun to see (especially since he's on my Fantasy team).
All of this should happen, but I get the feeling that, with the way this season has gone, it won't. With two weak defenses and two potent offenses, it should be a high scoring affair that the Cardinals win by virtue of the fact that they'll have the ball last.
But, the Rams still have something to play for, they're at home, and this just doesn't seem like a game that the Cardinals are ready to win yet.
Prediction: St. Louis 17, Arizona 13