NFC West: Arizona Cardinals

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In many ways, the Arizona Cardinals have become the team the St. Louis Rams hoped to be in this, the third year under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.

Not necessarily in style of play, though the Cardinals' defense is every bit as physical as their NFC West division brethren, but more in terms of how they've ascended in a division and with injuries which we've been told would be difficult to overcome.

For the better part of the past three seasons, much of the focus in the NFC West has been on Seattle and San Francisco and justifiably so given those teams' postseason accomplishments. The Rams and Cardinals, who meet Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET at University of Phoenix Stadium, have been considered the little brothers to the big, bad Seahawks and Niners. They're feisty enough to hang in there and maybe even win a fight or two but at the end of the day, big brother would always get the best of them.

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports"The one thing about [the NFC West] is everybody's got a physical, excellent defense. It all comes down to your quarterback play," Bruce Arians said.
At least, that was the expectation heading into this season as the Rams and Cardinals set about attempting to dethrone the kings. But while the Rams have remained mired in mediocrity, the Cardinals have enjoyed the same ascension the Rams had hoped they might enjoy this year.

Arizona boasts the league's best record at 7-1, a major surprise to many but not to those in the Rams' locker room.

"We’ve never overlooked that team, never looked down at that team," guard Rodger Saffold said. "We’ve always known they’ve been a good group even in years past, we’ve looked at them as a good group. A lot of these games are decided in the last minute as you guys know."

So how is it, then, that of the two teams considered to be the also-rans of the division, one can emerge at the top of the division while the other continues to languish in the basement? There are any number of possible explanations and some might argue that what separates the Cardinals and Rams is a more stable, veteran roster with a veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer in place. While there's some merit to that, it seems the biggest difference can be found in the teams' respective identities.

With Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim in charge in Arizona, there is a clear, obvious distinction of who the Cardinals want to be. They have an offense which wants to rely on the vertical passing game while mixing in the run and an aggressive, attacking defense that stops the run and creates turnovers.

Using that knowledge, Keim is able to draft players like little known rookie John Brown knowing he'll be utilized in the offense right away with a chance to contribute. It all starts with Arians' vision for the future and his unrelenting honesty to and about his team.

“He’s a straight shooter," Palmer said. "There is not something he’s hiding or no two-faced anything like that. He tells it like it is. Whether you’re playing well or bad, you’re going to hear about it. He doesn’t make any exceptions for who you are. It’s something the guys really respect. It’s easy to respect and play for a coach that ... he wears his emotions on his sleeve and just tells it like it is every day.”

For the Cardinals, the full buy-in to Arians' plans didn't happen until after a midseason loss to San Francisco in 2013. Arians pointed to a downtrodden locker room that needed everybody to believe winning every week was possible. Arians pushed the right button and the results have been as good as any team in the league. After that game, the Cardinals finished 7-3 and have gone on to win 14 of their past 18 games.

“I think it’s a matter of going out and doing it," Arians said. "The one thing about our division is everybody’s got a physical, excellent defense. It all comes down to your quarterback play and Carson for us halfway through last season began playing very, very well. I look at the whole division and everybody has offense, defensive lines, and the quarterback play usually separates everything."

Like the Rams, the Cardinals have also suffered plenty of injuries along the way, including one to Palmer earlier in the season. But Arizona has been more adept at overcoming those injuries in part because of a large coaching staff that allows for more attention to the backups and scout team in practice. The more personalized approach helps all 53 players work to get better every week.

"We have a large staff because I believe in small classrooms and a lot of eyes on players," Arians said. "Fundamentals win games, it’s not schemes. Too many young coaches get caught up in schemes, it’s blocking and tackling and you’ve got to have eyes on everybody out there on the practice field. With that many guys, we have eyes on our show team guys so they’re getting coached constantly when they’re putting on the other teams plays. So that if and when an injury occurs they’re ready to play.”

When the Rams look across the field at the Cardinals on Sunday, they won't be intimidated. They have wins against the Seahawks and 49ers and have a win against the Cardinals as recently as last year. They'll also see the team they'd hoped to see when they look in the mirror.

"Since Coach Fisher’s been here, we don’t really look at anybody in our division looking up," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "The standings you are technically looking up but we’ve always felt like we’re built to play against teams in our division. Arizona is one of them. There’s not any jealousy like that. We knew that going into the season everyone would kind of be talking about Seattle and San Francisco and for great reasons but we knew Arizona should be clumped in there as well. I’m not surprised by their record at all."

NFL Nation TV looks ahead

May, 27, 2014
May 27
12:00
PM ET
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast episode No. 7. Host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guests Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) and Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals reporter) discuss a range of topics from alleged hypocracy in the NFL, to Michael Vick talking out of both ends of his mouth, to Beast Mode skipping the White House. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

Live blog: Cardinals at Titans

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Arizona Cardinals' visit to the Tennessee Titans. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:15 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 
Larry Fitzgerald and Bernard PollardGetty Images, AP PhotoBernard Pollard and the Titans will try to hamper the playoff hopes of Larry Fitzgerald and Arizona.
In 2011, the Tennessee Titans had a new coach and a new feel. Mike Munchak’s team missed the playoffs by a game.

Things seemed new and fresh. Since then, however, the Titans are 11-18.

The Arizona Cardinals come to Nashville in a position not unlike those Titans from two years ago. Arizona’s on the playoff fringe, playing well and looking for its ninth win this season.

ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss the two teams in advance of Sunday's game.

Paul Kuharsky: Bruce Arians did masterful work filling in for Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis last season. He has a legitimate case for a second consecutive coach-of-the-year award. What have been the main ingredients in his first-year success with the Cards?

Josh Weinfuss: There have been a few contributing factors as to why Arians has had success this season, but it starts with him changing the culture of the entire organization. He's not a micromanager around the building and he's open with the players, and they love it. Like past regimes, he doesn't sugarcoat his feelings or his perceptions of a player. He'll tell them how it is, and they've responded well to the criticism. One obvious difference is the quarterback situation, and Arians handled it differently here than in the past, naming Carson Palmer the starter early and sticking with him. That gave players a chance to spend all of minicamp and the offseason knowing that Palmer was in charge, and they were able to get to know him and his rhythm. Even though it took about seven months for them to pick up the offense, it would've been longer had there been any wavering with the QB decision. Lastly, Arians is simply a great offensive coach and his ability to adapt his scheme to the personnel is showing.

How much credence is there to Munchak being on the hot seat and what kind of impact has this prospect had on the team?

Kuharsky: Oh, he’s on the hot seat. How can he not be when his team is in the worst division in the league and is 0-4 against that division (1-9 if we look at 2012 and 2013)? Players remain behind Munchak and I think they respect him immensely based on his Hall of Fame playing career. There is a certain chemistry that comes out of playing for a guy who has played at the highest level. But the standard is winning, and Munchak’s team has regularly lost to winning teams and to AFC South teams. An offseason revamp was supposed to brand the Titans as a team with a dominant offensive line and run game, and things haven’t panned out along those lines at all. The $10 million back, Chris Johnson, is averaging 3.8 yards a carry, and the offensive line hasn’t jelled.

How has the offensive line in Arizona come along, and how much has running back Rashard Mendenhall (3.1 yards a carry) yielded to rookie Andre Ellington (5.8)?

Weinfuss: It sounds cliché, but the proverbial light switch was flipped in Week 8 against Atlanta. Since then, the Cardinals' linemen been corralling pass rushes, creating holes for the running backs and, maybe most important, keeping Palmer upright. The tackles were still struggling with fast and powerful edge rushers, but left tackle Bradley Sowell did a good job of slowing St. Louis' Robert Quinn last Sunday. As for the guys for whom the line is blocking, Mendenhall and Ellington have two very distinct roles on this team. Mendenhall is the workhorse, the every-down back who will pound in between the tackles until he breaks free. He suffered from a turf-toe injury for most of the season but has been healthy for a few weeks. Ellington, on the other hand, has been more of the outside back. He has an extra gear Mendenhall doesn't, where he can hit the corner and take off. And Arians likes to use Ellington out wide more. So the two are quite different and each has accepted his role.

Is it just the Titans offensive line to blame for Johnson's decline in yards per carry or is there something else in play? Backs like that can only last so long in this league. In Year 6, how much longer do you think he has?

Kuharsky: It’s definitely not just the line. That group’s been slow to jell. Right tackle David Stewart is banged up and doesn’t move well. Rookie right guard Chance Warmack is too inconsistent. Rookie center Brian Schwenke started late because of a camp injury and now has a bad ankle. Left tackle Andy Levitre, the big free-agent prize, has admitted he needs an offseason to get right and get to playing up to his standard. I give the line a third of the blame, Johnson a third and the play calling a third. Johnson is just too tentative and doesn’t make anybody miss. And offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains can’t get CJ or Shonn Greene into a rhythm when one of them starts to get something going. They don’t seem to know how to solve a 3-4 defense, so advantage Cardinals there.

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby is having a big year and could be in the Defensive Player of the Year mix. How does defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme set him up for success?

Weinfuss: Bowles made a tweak up front and it has had a ripple effect throughout the defense, helping Dansby flourish. Bowles stayed with a 3-4 scheme but changed the defensive line's responsibilities up front from a multi-gap system to single-gap. It freed up the down linemen to pin their ears back and attack, which has flushed quarterbacks out of the pocket more quickly and made runners bounce outside. That, in turn, has helped Dansby get in front of more passes and allows him to roam sideline to sideline. He leads the league with 100 solo tackles and, with the help of a new diet, is playing at the level of a linebacker five years younger.

Tight ends have raked the Cardinals' defense for most of the season, one of the few weak spots in an otherwise-talented unit. How do the Titans use Delanie Walker, and can they exploit Arizona's undersized secondary?

Kuharsky: I would think they like the matchup. Walker is a tough, physical tight end who can run. He’s particularly effective when he gets angry. He’s coming off a game missed due to a concussion, so he could be at some risk if he takes a big shot. But I would expect Kendall Wright gets the most targets and Walker is second. Maybe the Cards have some insight into Walker from seeing him twice a year when he was with the 49ers. The Titans surely hope that doesn’t matter at all.

 

Live blog: Rams at Cardinals

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
2:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the St. Louis Rams' visit to the Arizona Cardinals. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Live blog: Cardinals at Eagles

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
10:30
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Arizona Cardinals' visit to the Philadelphia Eagles. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Live blog: Cardinals at Jaguars

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Arizona Cardinals' visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Live blog: Falcons at Cardinals

October, 27, 2013
10/27/13
2:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Atlanta Falcons' visit to the Arizona Cardinals. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Live blog: Cardinals at Buccaneers

September, 29, 2013
9/29/13
12:39
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Arizona Cardinals' visit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Patrick Peterson and Mike WilliamsGetty ImagesMike Williams will be called on to help jump-start Tampa Bay's offense, while Patrick Peterson will be charged with helping to keep him in check.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t the only NFL team practicing in the Tampa Bay area this week.

The Arizona Cardinals are practicing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as they get ready for Sunday’s game.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas talk about Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Josh, I know IMG has great facilities. The Buccaneers used them during the lockout, and the Carolina Panthers worked out there last year to avoid the congestion from the Democratic National Convention before playing the Bucs. But why did the Cardinals elect to come east early?

Weinfuss: Having just adjusted to the two-hour time difference in New Orleans, Bruce Arians didn’t want his players’ bodies to get totally out of whack going back to Pacific time (technically, Arizona is on Mountain time, but the state doesn’t change its clocks when the rest of the country does) and then five days later fly cross-country to the East Coast, another three hours ahead. I’m tired from thinking about it. This way, the Cardinals can adjust their body clocks to playing what would be a 10 a.m. home game in Arizona. We’ll see whether it works. There’s a pretty significant contingent inside the locker room that's not a fan of this, but those players might be after they realize what their bodies would have gone through. And then there’s playing in the Florida humidity, which takes more than a day or two to adapt to. In Arizona, it’s a dry heat (yeah, I know, everyone doubts it, but it really is), and the Cards neither practice nor play outside, so the added time in the elements could help.

Speaking of elements, is the Bucs' locker room in as much disarray right now as the perception makes people believe?

Yasinskas: It might be in even more disarray than people realize. Wednesday's news that the Bucs are benching quarterback Josh Freeman in favor of rookie Mike Glennon was just more evidence of how much dysfunction is going on with this team. Freeman and coach Greg Schiano never were firmly on the same page, and Freeman's fate was sealed the moment Schiano used a third-round draft pick on Glennon in April. But the fact that Schiano now is going with "his guy" isn't going to instantly solve all the problems. Freeman is a popular figure in the locker room, and some teammates might not agree with his benching. There also have been multiple reports about players not liking Schiano's militaristic style. The Bucs have denied those reports, but I think there's something to them. I believe that where there's smoke, there's fire.

Speaking of coaching styles, it’s early in the Arians era, but what is his persona and how has he been received by the players?

Weinfuss: He’s a no-nonsense type of guy, and the players love it. Well, maybe they loved it. Having a lackluster offense and starting 1-2 wasn’t what this team projected out of Arians. There haven’t been any signs of the players losing faith in their coach. They all raved about him during organized team activities, minicamp and training camp. The players appreciated his candidness with them. If they ever want to know where they stand, he’ll tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whether they like it or not.

He has been there for only three games, but is the Darrelle Revis acquisition working out and how has he changed the Bucs' defense?

Yasinskas: Revis has been everything the Bucs hoped for. They brought him in to fix a defense that led the league in passing yards allowed last season, and the early results have been good. Revis is the kind of player who makes those around him better, and his arrival really has helped strong safety Mark Barron. I’d imagine the Bucs will put Revis on Larry Fitzgerald for most -- or all -- of this game.

If Revis can neutralize Fitzgerald, do the Cardinals have enough other offensive weapons to win?

Weinfuss: That’s the $10,000 question. The short answer is yes, they do. The long answer is only if the other weapons -- most notably receivers Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts -- are not double-teamed. If they are and Revis can shut down Fitzgerald, it could be a long day for Arizona’s offense. But Arians is a smart enough offensive mind, so I’m sure he has accounted for this. Expect tight end Rob Housler to play an integral role Sunday, and look for the Cardinals’ stable of running backs -- Rashard Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith, Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor -- to come out of the backfield for passes and to create mismatches.

Aside from Revis, how has the rest of Tampa Bay’s defense looked?

Yasinskas: The defense has been a bright spot for Tampa Bay. In addition to the secondary, linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are off to very good starts. But the Patriots were able to run the ball against the Bucs, and Tampa Bay had trouble with the tight ends against the Jets and the Saints. The Bucs could be susceptible if Arizona can get some production from the running game or its tight ends.

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 3

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
12:30
PM ET
A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 31-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

No stopping Jimmy: The Cardinals shouldn’t feel bad. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is doing this to everyone he plays against. He finished with 134 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, and just abused whoever the Cardinals sent out to defend him. However, stopping big tight ends has been troublesome for the Cardinals this season without linebacker Daryl Washington.

“I mean, he’s tough,” cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “He’s a big body. It’s hard to cover those big-body guys, especially by him being a basketball player. He knows how to maneuver his body real well and he did a great job of boxing us out and going up and getting the ball.

“All Drew has to do is throw it in his vicinity.”

Everyone knew he was good when he averaged 65 yards per game, but he's at another level thus far in 2013, averaging 119 per game.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Tyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Bill HaberRookie Tyrann Mathieu, who intercepted this pass, is looking like a third-round steal.
Third-down progress?: Winning can heal a lot, such as last week’s 1-for-11 performance on third down. However, a loss and a 5-for-13 day on third downs? That won’t please anyone. The Cardinals can’t seem to figure out how to get first downs when the down marker rolls to third. Palmer was 3-for-11 on third-down dropbacks against New Orleans, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Just on third downs, Palmer was 4-for-9 for 46 yards, threw for three first downs and was sacked twice. And the Cardinals aren’t looking for their best receiver on third downs, either. In the past two weeks, Palmer has targeted Fitzgerald just once on third downs in each game.

Mathieu proving himself: Three games, three big plays. The cream of the rookie class may be rising from the third round. Tyrann Mathieu proved he doesn’t just make big plays in the NFL, but he does it on the biggest stage. Sounds familiar? It’s the storyline of his career. Mathieu had another play Sunday, intercepting Drew Brees in front of Mathieu’s hometown crowd at the Superdome. Mathieu downplayed the pick, but it was hard to ignore the media attention he received. He could be the biggest steal of the 2013 draft when it’s all said and done.

When it rains it pours: Any time a player tweets the words, “God has a plan,” attached to a photo of his foot on a private jet, it can’t be good. Those words and that photo came from linebacker Sam Acho, one of three starters left Sunday’s game and didn’t return. He was out with an ankle injury, while linebacker Lorenzo Alexander suffered a foot injury and safety Rashad Johnson left the game with a finger issue. Injuries are a part of the game, and they can quickly derail a season (see: 2012), but the Cardinals have enough depth at those positions to help make up for their losses. With how poorly the offense played after that initial touchdown, the injuries were adding insult to literal injury.
NEW ORLEANS -- Darnell Dockett had a career day but the 10-year veteran wouldn’t speak of it.

For just the third time in his career -- and the first in four years -- Dockett recorded three sacks in a game. Yet, he didn’t want to focus on his the superlative day following Arizona’s 31-7 loss to New Orleans.

“We played well up front. We got chances to get after the quarterback, we did a great job at it,” Dockett said. “Me, personally, I don’t care about what I did in the game. I don’t care about stats. I’m not one of those stats people. I care about wins and losses. Anytime I go on the road, you can give me zero tackles, zero everything and give me a win, and that’s good enough for me.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Darnell Dockett
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsDarnell Dockett celebrates one of his three sacks against the Saints.
“That’s my main focus. We fell short as a team and this business is all about wins and losses, and we lost today.”

Dockett picked up the slack from Dan Williams' absence. Williams missed Sunday’s game after his father, Thomas, was killed in a car accident while driving from Memphis to New Orleans. Williams’ nose tackle position was filled on a rotation, but Dockett was steady all day.

He had four quarterback hits and was disturbing the Saints’ offense on a few plays.

“There were times I thought he got after the quarterback and was back there in the backfield being disruptive,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who wouldn’t elaborate on Dockett’s play until he watched the game film.

Dockett was emotional, even introspective, after the game, showing a renewed passion that coincided with Todd Bowles’ new one-gap, 3-4 defense.

“We were better than that,” Dockett said. “I mean, Saints is a good team. They’re not that good. They made plays. They made more plays than we did. I told my team today, ‘The only thing about today is we can’t go 15-1. It’s the only thing bad about today.’

“There’s a lot of football left. Nobody should be feeling sorry for themselves, pointing fingers and all that. Sometimes it takes a good loss like this to re-evaluate yourself and tell yourself you’re not that good and you work harder with your craft. We will perform better next week, I’ll be sure of that.”

Live blog: Cardinals at Saints

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
12:47
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Arizona Cardinals' visit to the New Orleans Saints. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Tavon Austin and Carson PalmerUSA TODAY SportsTavon Austin and Carson Palmer were part of overhauls on offense for the Rams and Saints.
The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals are widely regarded as the afterthoughts of the difficult NFC West Division.

Sure, both teams have done enough to draw optimism from their respective fan bases but when it comes to high expectations, neither team is supposed to keep pace with chic Super Bowl picks Seattle and San Francisco.

If the Rams or Cardinals intend to keep pace with the Seahawks and Niners, it would serve them well to beat the other to open the season.

Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss discuss the important topics that will shape Sunday’s outcome.

Nick Wagoner: Sitting here in St. Louis, it looks like it’s been a busy offseason out there, the type that I’m used to seeing around here. The Cardinals had a major makeover in the front office and with the coaching staff. The obvious first question here is what type of impact has new coach Bruce Arians made since his arrival?

Josh Weinfuss: Pretty much from the get-go, Arians has changed the culture throughout the organization. He’s not a micromanager. All he cares about is winning football games. Arians cleaned house almost immediately and brought in his own staff, save for two holdovers -- quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens and defensive assistant Ryan Slowik. But it was more than the personnel he changed. The mindset was different, too. Players were excited again after losing seasons two of the past three years, and Arians established respect throughout the locker room quickly. He was open and honest with the players, even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and the players appreciated it, some even relished in it.

It’s not like you haven’t seen some change there in St. Louis. With the loss of Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola, how has the Rams' offensive identity changed this season?

Wagoner: After eight years of Steven Jackson punching the clock and picking up 1,000 yards or more on the ground, things are quite a bit different in that regard. The Rams are faster with tight end Jared Cook and receivers Tavon Austin and Chris Givens. They’ve added those guys to give quarterback Sam Bradford every chance to succeed. The offense has been rebuilt to feature Bradford and allow him to take the next step. While offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says the tempo and style of offense will change from game to game and be more game-plan specific, there’s little doubt the offense will look much different than it has been around here in some time.

Speaking of building around quarterbacks, Carson Palmer is an obvious upgrade at quarterback but how much will that improve the offense?

Weinfuss: I think it’ll improve the offense more than most people think, but for a few reasons. Not only will the Cardinals now have a capable quarterback who threw for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns last season -- they’ll have consistency. The Cardinals trotted out four different starters in 2012 and there was no unity that kept the offense together. Combined, they threw for 3,383 yards and 11 touchdowns -- that’s 635 fewer yards and half as many scores. In Arians’ downfield offense, having a big arm and a smart quarterback is as important as any factor. And Palmer showed during the preseason that he can launch it.

You talk about the new weapons around Bradford, but how will the addition of left tackle Jake Long help the Rams' offense, specifically the running game?

Wagoner: The Rams did everything they could during the preseason and training camp to ensure Long is healthy and ready to go when the season begins. They limited his reps in practice to keep him fresh, and he responded with solid performances in the three preseason games in which he appeared. He says he feels as good as he has in three years and from talking to him, he’s got something of a chip on his shoulder. He was told for years he was an elite tackle then people began doubting him last year. He looks poised to bounce back and be effective in pass protection and the run game.

While we’re on the topic of offensive lines, it certainly seems to be the ongoing saga out there. The Rams had nine sacks last year when Arizona came to town. Has the offensive line improved enough to keep Palmer upright on a consistent basis?

Weinfuss: The short answer is yes. The long, complicated answer is we’ll see. Last year the Cardinals allowed a league-high 58 sacks, but that was with a patchwork offensive line that saw seven different starters. This year, the unit is more solidified with the return of Levi Brown, who missed last season with a torn triceps, and the addition of free agent right tackle Eric Winston, who has started every game since 2008. The biggest question mark will be the interior. First-round pick Jonathan Cooper is out for the year with a broken leg, which forced Daryn Colledge to move from right guard back to left and opened the door for Paul Fanaika at right guard. He was out of football last season. Overall, this year’s line is a veteran, improved unit and I expect it to protect Palmer, who was sacked 26 times last year, better than he’s seen in a while.

Let’s flip to the other side of the ball. How much can the Rams rely on solid corner play to make up for having no starting experience at safety?

Wagoner: Well, the Rams have talent and experience returning at every position on the defense except for safety. Rookie T.J. McDonald and second-year undrafted free agent Rodney McLeod are the likely starters Sunday and they have a total of zero starts between them. They do have veteran Cortland Finnegan to provide leadership in the secondary and McDonald seems wise beyond his years. Still, it may be tough on those young safeties against Arians’ vertical passing attack. McDonald figures to play more of the box safety role and McLeod is a better fit as a center-field type on the back end.

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