Backup quarterbacks could be on call in Rams-Cards tilt
It's been nearly a year since the St. Louis Rams last won on the road, while the Arizona Cardinals haven't won since Week 1 of this season and the two teams have combined for just two victories in 2011.
Not exactly a marquee matchup.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals try to snap a six-game slide this Sunday against a Rams club that is coming off its first victory of the season.
Arizona seemed poised to earn its first victory since Sept. 11 over Carolina in its last time out, taking an 18-point lead into halftime against a talented Baltimore squad last Sunday. However, the Ravens' defense held the visiting Cardinals in check over the second half and stormed back to beat the NFC West residents by a 30-27 score on Billy Cundiff's 25-yard field goal as time expired.
It was the Cardinals' 15th loss in their last 18 games dating back to last year, including a seven-game losing streak to kick off that stretch. All three of those wins did come at home, however.
"It's hard right now," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Our guys are very disappointed after [the Baltimore] game because it was an opportunity to do something that nobody thought we could do."
Arizona got a gutsy effort from running back Beanie Wells, who started despite a knee injury that limited him during the game. Complicating matters was quarterback Kevin Kolb injuring himself early on in the contest.
Though Kolb took every snap, he is day-to-day this week due to a turf toe ailment. Second-year pro John Skelton would get his fifth career start and first this season if Kolb can't go.
"It's going to really depend on his ability to be able to run and plant off [the foot]," Whisenhunt said of Kolb. "So that's going to be [about] how much movement he can get back if the swelling goes down. So we'll see where it is as it progresses, but it's made a lot of progress since Sunday."
Wells, meanwhile, did not practice on Wednesday but should still be ready for this game.
St. Louis has been without its No. 1 quarterback in Sam Bradford for the past two weeks due to a high left ankle sprain, but that didn't stop the Rams from picking up their first victory of 2011 with a 31-21 shocker over the high- powered New Orleans Saints last weekend.
One the same day that several players from the MLB-champion St. Louis Cardinals showed up with their World Series trophy in tow, running back Steven Jackson stepped up in Bradford's absence, rushing for a season-high 159 yards to go along with two touchdowns.
St. Louis, which was the last team in the NFC to pick up a win, led 17-0 at the half on the strength of a blocked punt and interception that helped set up touchdowns, while young defensive back Darian Stewart iced the game with a 27- yard pick-six later on.
In addition to Bradford, wide receiver Danario Alexander (hamstring), linebacker Brady Poppinga (calf) and cornerback Justin King (groin) all missed the game, leading to several players needing to step up.
"We had a lot of guys out today that normally would be out there," said Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo afterward. "For the leaders to step up, guys like [defensive end] James Hall and Steven Jackson, and lead their units, rally them, that's what this league's all about. You need that and we got it [last week]. Hopefully we can keep it going."
A.J. Feeley started his second straight game in place of Bradford, getting his first win as a starter since Dec. 26, 2004 while with Miami. Bradford, the top pick of the 2010 draft, could be ready to return for this game after recently shedding the cast and walking boot he had been in. Bradford did participate in some of the Wednesday's walk-through, but will be very limited in practice this week.
"It feels pretty good walking around," Bradford said of his ankle on Wednesday. "I haven't tested it with running or full-speed drops but [head athletic trainer Reggie Scott] has a plan and we are on that plan. We came out here and did a little bit today and we'll hopefully do a little more [Thursday] and see where it is by the end of the week."
At 1-6, both the Rams and Cardinals sit five games back of the first-place San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West. St. Louis will play its first divisional game of the season on Sunday, and five of its next six contests are against NFC West teams. Arizona has lost its only division game this year.
The Rams have lost five straight on the road since a victory in Arizona on Dec. 5 of last season.
This long-played series, which dates back to 1937, is tied at 31-31-2 overall after the Rams recorded a 19-6 triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium last December. That victory halted a string of eight consecutive Arizona wins in the set, including a 17-13 decision in St. Louis in the 2010 season opener. The Rams had lost in Arizona in each of the three previous seasons prior to last year's verdict, but did come through with road wins over the Cards in both 2005 and 2006.
The only postseason meeting between the two occurred in 1975, when the then- Los Angeles Rams pulled out a 35-23 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in an NFC Divisional Playoff.
Whisenhunt owns a 7-1 record against the Rams since taking over as the Cardinals' head coach in 2007, with the lone defeat taking place during Week 13 of last season. Spagnuolo is 1-3 against Arizona and in head-to-head bouts with Whisenhunt as well.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
With Bradford (1177 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) out another week, Jackson (449 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 5 total TD) threw the Rams' 28th ranked offense on his shoulders and put together his best outing of the season. Jackson's two-touchdown effort took a lot of pressure off Feeley (392 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), who threw for 175 yards on 20-of-37 passing while getting sacked four times. Arizona does have a decent run defense, so whomever is St. Louis' quarterback this week may need to make more plays. Having wide receiver Brandon Lloyd in the mix will help that. Playing in his second game since being acquired in a trade with the Broncos, Lloyd (31 receptions, 410 yards, 1 TD) was targeted 13 times against New Orleans and made a team-leading six catches for 53 yards. One of those was an eight-yard scoring throw from Feeley near the end of the first half. With Alexander (16 receptions, 1 TD), one of St. Louis' leading receivers, out, rookie Greg Salas (20 receptions) added five receptions for 47 yards and Jackson made four grabs for another 32. Wideout Brandon Gibson (19 receptions, 1 TD) turned two catches into 27 yards, showing that the Rams like to spread the ball out.
Arizona's disappointing loss last weekend was not without plays from the defense, but the unit had no answer for the Ravens in the second half. The Cardinals allowed 156 yards in the first half, but yielded 249 yards along with 24 points over the final two quarters. With linebacker Joey Porter (16 tackles, 1 sack) out with a knee injury, rookie Sam Acho (9 tackles, 2 sacks) got his first NFL start in the loss and finished with six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, while fellow backup O'Brien Schofield (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks) also had a sack that resulted in a fumble that led to a score. Cornerback Richard Marshall (30 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) notched an interception, but was part of a secondary that failed to contain former Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who logged seven catches for 145 yards. That secondary also remains without safety Kerry Rhodes (24 tackles, 2 sacks) due to a foot injury, with his replacement Rashad Johnson (19 tackles) leading the way with eight tackles last Sunday. Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson (32 tackles, 1 INT) also struggled in coverage last week and will likely be tested again in this game. Arizona's run defense, led by tackle Darnell Dockett (21 tackles) and linebacker Daryl Washington (36 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT), ranks 15th in the league with 113.1 yards allowed per game, though the Cards are yielding 277.6 yards through the air per game.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona will be thankful to see the Rams' 30th-ranked defense this weekend after facing the league's top-ranked unit in each of previous two games. After taking on Pittsburgh in Week 7, the Cardinals logged just 207 yards versus Baltimore, using some turnovers and an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown from Peterson to rack up points. The game ball definitely belonged to Wells (506 rushing yards, 7 TD) after he gutted out 83 yards with a touchdown on 22 carries, and the Cardinals needed every yard due to Kolb's injury. Kolb (1706 passing yards, 8 TD, 8 INT) was sacked six times and completed just 10 of his 21 pass attempts for 153 yards in the game. He was also picked off once while finding Early Doucet (28 receptions, 3 TD) for a touchdown through the air. There's little doubt the Cardinals will try again to get Larry Fitzgerald (34 receptions, 2 TD) involved this week. The perennial Pro Bowler had 98 yards on just three catches versus the Ravens and is sure to draw most of the attention from the Rams' secondary. That could open up the door for Doucet, wide receiver Andre Roberts or tight end Jeff King (14 receptions, 2 TD) to make some plays. King had three catches last weekend as Todd Heap (13 receptions) missed the game with a hamstring issue and fellow tight end Rob Housler suffered a groin injury during the game. Also of concern is an ankle issue sustained by rookie Anthony Sherman, the only listed fullback on the team's depth chart before Reagan Maui'a was signed on Tuesday.
The Rams will look to dial up the pressure again this weekend after recording six sacks last Sunday versus the Saints. Defensive end Chris Long (14 tackles, 6 sacks) had three of those, a career high, while defensive tackle Fred Robbins (12 tackles, 1 sack) and rookie end Robert Quinn (6 tackles, 2 sacks) also had quarterback takedowns. Quinn also came up with a blocked punt late in the first half. Linebacker James Laurinaitis (57 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) had the team's other sack and led the Rams with 10 tackles, while cornerback Josh Gordy (14 tackles) started in place of an injured Justin King (30 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and posted seven tackles in addition to his first career interception. Stewart (37 tackles) ended with six tackles and another backup, cornerback Marquis Johnson, had four stops. Chris Chamberlain (24 tackles, 1 sack) got his third straight start at weakside linebacker and posted three tackles in the win. St. Louis' 32nd-ranked run defense limited New Orleans to 56 yards on 20 attempts, an average of 2.8 yards per carry, though the Saints did get one of their two touchdowns on the ground. With Wells' among the league leaders in rushing scores, Laurinaitis and safety Quintin Mikell (43 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) will need to have their unit ready to stop the run.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Whether it's Kolb or Skelton, the Cardinals need to find a way to get Fitzgerald the ball. The playmaker has caught 12 touchdowns over his last 13 games versus the Rams, with that total representing his best against any single opponent.
The Rams were able to get pressure on the Saints last week and will look to take advantage of a troublesome Cardinals offensive line. The entire unit struggled versus the Ravens and Whisenhunt is still deciding whether Brandon Keith or Jeremy Bridges will start at right tackle. Both had problems a week ago.
All eyes should be on how the inexperienced Rams secondary performs for a second straight week. The unit should be full of confidence after containing Drew Brees and isn't likely to be intimidated by Arizona's options under center.
Two teams with NFC West title hopes instead meet nine weeks into the season trying to get out of the division's basement. Momentum will seem to be on St. Louis' side after last weekend's big win, but as noted above, the Cardinals have had the Rams' number over the past few years. Both teams have questions under center due to injury, with St. Louis having the edge among the backups due to Feeley's experience. The Rams and Cards both give up their fair share of points and a shootout favors the hosting club, but nagging injuries to Kolb and Wells should swing things in St. Louis' favor.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 17, Cardinals 13