Published September 06, 2013
| Sports Network
Everything was going Arizona's way nearly a year ago as the Cardinals had put together a 4-0 start and were off to St. Louis to battle the rebuilding Rams.
Little did they know, it was about to get as hot and sticky as a summer in the desert, with a 14-point setback at the Edward Jones Dome to begin October starting a nine-game losing streak that doomed the Cardinals' season and cost more than a few jobs in Glendale.
Arizona returns to St. Louis to begin the 2013 campaign on Sunday with reborn hope, as well as a new head coach, in Bruce Arians' Cardinals debut.
The Cardinals sent general manager Rod Graves and head coach Ken Whisenhunt packing after last year's 5-11 campaign, replacing Graves with Steve Keim. Arians was then brought in for his first official NFL head coaching job, though he does so having won Coach of the Year honors in 2012 with the Indianapolis Colts.
Arians took over as interim head coach for Chuck Pagano, who left the Colts to begin treatment for leukemia. Indianapolis went 9-3 under Arians, tying an NFL record for the most wins by an interim head coach.
Arians now gets a chance to run his own squad and brought in Harold Goodwin and Todd Bowles to serve as his offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively.
"It's extremely exciting for me. It's something I never thought would happen. Last year was an unbelievable fairy tale ride for all of us, and the biggest part of that fairy tale was seeing (Colts Head Coach) Chuck (Pagano) get well and come back for that last game," Arians said.
"But, yeah, it proves something to me. Whether it happened or not, I was satisfied that I had my taste and it was good. I could do the job, and (Cardinals owner Michael) Bidwell gave me the honor of being a head coach."
The business side of the Cardinals was not the only one to undergo changes. Arians got himself a new quarterback when Arizona traded for Oakland's Carson Palmer, while running back Rashard Mendenhall. linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Yeremiah Bell are among the fresh faces on defense.
In all, Sunday's lineup for the Cardinals is projected to have 14 players who were not starters for the club a season ago.
Arians had hoped 2013 first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper would be among those players, but he will miss the season with a fractured fibula suffered in the preseason.
"It was a body blow to us because he's not just a great player, he's a great kid. You hate for a rookie, especially your first pick who you feel so highly about, to lose him for the season," noted Arians.
No Cardinals head coach has won his debut since Don Coryell in 1973 and Arians will also look to have Arizona win its fourth straight season opener for the first time since 1973-76.
Arizona had won seven straight trips to St. Louis before last year's Week 5 loss and the Rams won the rematch in the desert on Nov. 25. The Cardinals, though, have still won seven of the last 10 meetings.
St. Louis is a year into a rebuilding project similar to Arizona and improved its win total by 5 1/2 games last season under Jeff Fisher, who led the Rams to a 7-8-1 finish in his first campaign with the club.
Fisher did so with one of the youngest rosters in football and though veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon was added in the offseason, St. Louis is expected to have a pair of rookie starters on defense in linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald.
Second-year running back Daryl Richardson also takes over the starting role from Steven Jackson, who joined the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason.
That leaves the Rams with a young offense as well, with fourth-year quarterback Sam Bradford leading the unit.
"That's not an excuse," said Fisher. "We're young, but that's not an excuse as far as what takes place on Sundays. We're going to line people up because they're ready to play. I think it's a promising future for us, but I'm not concerned about it."
Fisher is 10-7 in his head coaching career on Kickoff Weekend, while the Rams are 6-4 when opening the season at home since moving to St. Louis in 1995.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Bradford and Palmer square off this Sunday as a pair of former Heisman Trophy winners who were drafted first overall. Palmer was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals to begin the 2003 draft, while the Rams used the top pick in 2010 on Bradford.
Both are coming off solid seasons, with Palmer throwing for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns with 14 interceptions last year for the Raiders. It was his third career 4,000-yard passing season.
"He's fantastic. It's hard to go get a No. 1 draft choice like that at quarterback in the trade that we got." Arians said of Palmer. "Like I said, he can still make every throw. He's as pretty a deep ball thrower as I've ever seen. He's still got it, and he's extremely accurate. A big thing is we've got to keep him upright."
Bradford, meanwhile, had a career year with 3,702 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to 13 picks.
Both quarterbacks will be looking at improvement in front of them on the offensive line. St. Louis added four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long to a unit that allowed just 35 sacks last year after giving up 55 in 2011.
The Cardinals won't have Cooper, but will see left tackle Levi Brown return from a triceps injury that caused him to miss all of the 2012 season. Minus Brown, Arizona quarterbacks were sacked 58 times last year.
Palmer will look to build some chemistry with Larry Fitzgerald, who finds his name throughout the Cardinals receiving records but had a done year in 2012 due to inefficiency at the quarterback spot. He has still caught a pass in a franchise-record 133 straight games and is only TD catch versus the Rams shy of becoming the only active player in the NFL with at least 14 scoring receptions against any one opponent.
Palmer has quickly become a fan.
"He's phenomenal," the QB said of Fitzgerald. "Obviously, everybody knows that. He's been doing it for a long time. He makes amazing catches, he makes the easy catches. He runs great routes, he's 6-foot-4. He plays extremely physical, he runs really well with the ball after the catch."
A running game would help as the Cardinals ranked 32nd on the ground a year ago at 75.3 yards per game.
Bradford helped St. Louis rank 23rd in the league at 314.3 yards per game and will have a pair of new targets in tight end Jared Cook, signed as a free agent following four seasons with Tennessee, and wide receiver Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick of the 2013 draft.
"I'm ready to go. I'm ready to see these young guys out there. They've put in a lot of time. They've done a great job learning the system so far," said Bradford.
Richardson has a tall task in replacing the club's all-time leading rusher in Jackson, and averaged 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie last year.
The Rams will go up against a defense that ranked fifth overall against the pass in 2012, but just 28th in defending the run.
Arizona still has three new faces expected to start in the secondary in Bell, corner Jerraud Powers and free safety Rashad Johnson, who made three starts in 15 games last year with the Cards. Arizona does return Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson, who had seven interceptions last year and is also the club's fifth wide receiver this year.
The Cards' Darnell Dockett has 34 career sacks, most among NFL defensive tackles, while linebacker John Abraham joins Arizona in a specialist role the owner of 122 career sacks, highest by any active player.
Dansby also returns for his second stint with the club, but Arizona won't have 2012 breakout star Daryl Washington after the linebacker was suspended for the first four games of the season violating the NFL's Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.
"I think that they've definitely made improvements to their defense from last year," said Bradford of the Cardinals. "Obviously, their front is pretty much the same, but some of the guys that they've added in the back end really help that group. And then obviously with a new D-coordinator, you've kind of got to expect the unexpected in Game 1."
The Rams will test Arizona's offensive line with a front four that features stud end Chris Long as well as tackle Michael Brockers and end Robert Quinn. Long led St. Louis with 11 1/2 sacks a season ago and Quinn added 10 1/2.
Ogletree was the second of two first-round picks held by the Rams this year and will start at the left outside linebacker spot next to 2012 leading tackler James Laurinaitis.
Strong safety McDonald was taken in the third round after grabbing eight interceptions during his college career at USC, while cornerback Janoris Jenkins keyed St. Louis' 14th-ranked defense last year with four interceptions and four defensive scores as a rookie (3 INT, 1 fumble).
While it may appear the Cardinals are starting over under Arians, they are a bit ahead of the curve thanks to a solid defense and a veteran under center in Palmer. Getting Fitzgerald involved will be key and the Cards will try to move him around to keep him away from physical Rams corner Cortland Finnegan.
St. Louis will being sending Long and Quinn at Palmer in full force to test Arizona's shaky line and will try to exploit the absence of Washington. Bradford has the ability to do just that and the additions of Cook and Austin to wide receivers Chris Givens and Austin Pettis will help.
This should be a tight affair, but the Rams have made just enough upgrades to have the edge.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 27, Cardinals 17