- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Cardinals are banged up on the offensive line with Fanaika dealing with an ankle sprain since Week 13 and far from a certainty to play this week. If Fanaika is out, the normal left guard Ted Larsen will replace him on the right side forcing Cooper into the lineup. In fact, it's probably a better bet that Cooper will make his second consecutive start. Cooper was the highly-touted guard prospect from North Carolina in 2013 who missed the season with a knee injury and has still be working his way to the starting lineup. Against Kansas City last week, Arizona coach Bruce Arians said Cooper was 'OK' but mentioned that he'd been pushed backwards about 10 times.
In Brockers, Cooper (or Larsen) would be drawing the most favorable matchup of any of the Cardinals offensive linemen. That's not to say Brockers is a pushover so much as it's better than having to deal with the likes of Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald. But Brockers has played much better in recent weeks, particularly against the run and he's a big, powerful sort who could give the athletic but smaller Cooper some issues. The Cardinals are going to have their hands full upfront but their line has been much improved in 2014. Brockers versus Fanaika or Cooper isn't the draw of other matchups upfront but it could be an important one in determining the outcome.
The Rams defense is playing so well right now that it seems the only way to really beat them is to get a big play. Well, few players in the league have a knack for the big play like Brown. The Rams found that out first hand in the first meeting between the teams when Brown made a spectacular diving catch for a 48-yard touchdown that was ultimately the game winner. Brown has made a habit of those big plays in his rookie season though his production has tailed off a bit since that big catch against St. Louis.
The Rams, meanwhile, are getting much better production out of their secondary lately in part because they're finally healthy. With Trumaine Johnson back, the Rams have been using Gaines as the starter at left cornerback but kicking him inside in the nickel. That's where Gaines could see plenty of Brown this time around. Brown beat safety Rodney McLeod for the touchdown in Arizona but Gaines is a reliable cover type who hasn't allowed many big plays this year.
It's unlikely the Rams can continue to pitch shutouts but if they want another one, they'll need Gaines to be on point against Brown.
I wanted to avoid repeats from the first matchup here but I'm making an exception for this one considering Cook's success against the Cardinals in that meeting. Cook had two catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in that game and Arizona continues to struggle to cover tight ends consistently.
Even before that, Cook had a big game in the 2013 season opener when he torched Arizona to the tune of seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He would have had three scores if not for an amazing play by Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to force a fumble just before Cook crossed the goal line. Regardless, Arizona was one of the worst teams in the league last year defending tight ends which led directly to the selection of Bucannon.
Bucannon has been used primarily in the nickel and dime for the Cardinals but has flashed the potential to help in a variety of ways. He had his first career fumble recovery in Week 8 against Philadelphia and has 39 tackles and two passes defended so far in his rookie season. With Mathieu out because of a thumb injury and cornerback Antonio Cromartie battling an ankle issue, the Cardinals figure to have some question marks in the secondary. That could mean any plans to help slow Cook might have to be altered to help elsewhere.
A look at three individual matchups to keep an eye on when the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals meet Thursday.