NFC West: Three things preseason 2011

Three things: Seahawks-Raiders

September, 2, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Seattle Seahawks' preseason home game against the Oakland Raiders at 10:30 p.m. ET:

1. Pass protection: The Seahawks want their offensive line to make strides in preparation for the regular-season opener at San Francisco. Starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has taken seven sacks and avoided several others. The pressure has played a role in his 3.8-yard average per attempt. The Raiders have only four sacks through three exhibition games, including zero in first quarters and only one in first halves. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging a healthy 7.9 yards per attempt against Oakland overall. The 49ers' Alex Smith, under siege against New Orleans and Houston this preseason, completed 8 of 13 passes for 136 yards with no sacks when facing the Raiders. The Seahawks will remain without starting left tackle Russell Okung, their best lineman. But they should still expect improvement in pass protection against this opponent. Right tackles James Carpenter and Breno Giacomini are in the spotlight for this game.

2. Golden opportunity: Lame cliched lead-in, I know, but at least it's an accurate one. Receiver Golden Tate should expect to play more reps than usual. Seattle is missing a few receivers to injury in this game. The team would like to accelerate Tate's development following a condensed offseason. Tate, chosen in the second round of the 2010 draft, has four receptions for 24 yards to this point in the exhibition season. He dropped a pass against Minnesota, leading to a turnover. Tate does not appear to be fighting for a roster spot, but neither has there been signs he's going to factor into the offense as much as coach Pete Carroll has said he expects.

3. Young defensive players. Wait, that covers pretty much everyone, come to think of it. Linebacker Malcolm Smith, linebacker K.J. Wright and free safety Mark LeGree are the youngest players on the Seahawks' defensive roster. Safety Jeron Johnson and cornerback Richard Sherman aren't far behind. I'll be attending this game and hope to get a better feel for the young depth on defense, to the extent that is possible in a fourth preseason game. Oh, and there are five Seattle defenders in their 30s: Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Colin Cole, Marcus Trufant and Jimmy Wilkerson. Only one, Trufant, starts.

Three things: Cardinals-Broncos

September, 1, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason home game against the Denver Broncos at 10 p.m. ET:

1. Patrick Peterson's impact: The Cardinals' first-round draft choice returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown in Arizona's most recent exhibition game. He slipped twice on another play, allowing a big gain. Sometimes it's tough to tell how players in the secondary are faring, particularly when watching on TV. Depending on the coverage, someone unfamiliar with the team's playbook will have a hard time saying with much certainty whether a cornerback handled his responsibilities correctly. Sometimes, a safety is to blame when a cornerback appears most culpable. Big plays are tough to miss, however.

2. Quarterback depth: Backups John Skelton (ankle) and Max Hall (shoulder) will not play. Hall is out for the season. The Cardinals will be happy at the position as long as starter Kevin Kolb remains healthy. But depth is a concern. Rich Bartel figures to play more extensively against the Broncos. He has improved his standing this summer and could be a candidate to unseat Skelton for the No. 2 role. The Broncos are coming off a strong pass-rushing game against Seattle. How well will the Cardinals' quarterbacks hold up?

3. Young pass-rushers. The Cardinals went into the 2011 draft thinking they might have a shot at pass-rusher Von Miller. That shot went away quickly when the Broncos made Miller the second overall choice. The Cardinals didn't value any of the other college pass-rushers enough to draft them fifth overall. As a result, Arizona is heading into its final game of the preseason trying to develop young pass-rushers with less impressive pedigrees. Second-year outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield is one of those younger prospects. Schofield has one of the Cardinals' six sacks in three exhibition games.

Three things: Rams-Jaguars

September, 1, 2011
Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at 7:30 p.m. ET:

1. Sims-Walker homecoming: Only preseason, right? Right. But new Rams receiver Mike Sims-Walker has to be looking forward to playing his old team in Jacksonville. The Jaguars made little effort to bring back Sims-Walker, even though their receiving corps lacked front-line talent. Sims-Walker wound up settling for a modest deal in St. Louis. When I visited Rams camp, Sims-Walker said he was walking around with a whole cracker, not just a chip, on his shoulder this season. Rams fans have been anxious to see production from some of their new receivers, including Sims-Walker and two rookie draft choices. Some other receivers are fighting for roster spots.

2. Robert Quinn's development. The Rams' first-round draft choice had three tackles, two quarterback hits, one sack and a blocked field goal against Kansas City in the team's most recent exhibition game. Some of those stats were redundant -- sacks are hits, while both are tackles -- but the overall production was encouraging for the Rams. The Jaguars have allowed 10 sacks through three exhibition games, so Quinn should have an opportunity or two. The Rams aren't banking on him as a starter right away, but getting contributions from him is important as their defense tries to take another step.

3. Pass protection. The Jaguars have not sacked an opposing quarterback to this point in the exhibition schedule. They've gotten good pressure at times, and Aaron Kampman is expected back on the field for them in this game. Keeping Sam Bradford upright is always a top priority for the Rams. But with the Rams feeling good about themselves following a strong showing against the Chiefs last week, now isn't the time to relax, particularly while Bradford is in the game.

Three things: Cardinals-Chargers

August, 27, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason home game against the San Diego Chargers at 10 p.m. ET:

1. Beanie Wells' health: Losing rookie running back Ryan Williams to a season-ending knee injury last week was tough enough. It's tougher yet for Arizona knowing Wells, the only viable starting back remaining on the roster, hasn't exactly set the standard for NFL ironmen. Wells sprained an ankle during his very first training camp practice with the team back in 2009. The knee injury he suffered during an Aug. 28, 2010 preseason game at Chicago required surgery. Running backs get injured. It's the nature of the position. Wells and the Cardinals could use some luck on that front.

2. O'Brien Schofield's encore. Sometimes NFL teams invest draft choices in highly talented players with serious injury concerns. The Cardinals' division rival, Seattle, did that with cornerback Walter Thurmond a year ago. The move looks like it's paying off. Arizona took a similar approach when drafting Schofield, who required reconstructive surgery after injuring a knee during Senior Bowl practices in early 2010. Schofield had a sack and forced fumble for the Cardinals against Green Bay last week, a positive sign. Arizona will be watching closely to see if Schofield can build on the performance.

3. Kevin Kolb's home debut. The Cardinals' new quarterback should expect an enthusiastic welcome from Arizona fans longing for restored competence at the position. Kolb is looking for his first touchdown pass of his first preseason with the team. Fans wouldn't complain if Kolb found the newly re-signed Larry Fitzgerald for a score. I'd be a little surprised if the Cardinals didn't make it happen in this game.

Three things: Seahawks-Broncos

August, 27, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Seattle Seahawks' preseason road game against the Denver Broncos at 9 p.m. ET:

1. First-team offense TD: The Seahawks have yet to score a preseason touchdown on offense with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. Shaky pass protection, dropped passes by Golden Tate and a failure at the Minnesota goal line have not helped. The first-team offense did sustain a 15-play drive against the Raiders, an improvement from the preseason opener. I'm interested in seeing who Jackson targets on third down. His 17-yard pass to Mike Williams on third-and-5 against Minnesota stands as his lone pass for a third-down conversion. He threw incomplete to Justin Forsett, Zach Miller and Doug Baldwin on three others. A 6-yard completion to Forsett came up short. This is not a huge deal. We're only in preseason. But it's something to watch.

2. Backup running backs. Starter Marshawn Lynch will not play. He's resting a sore ankle. That could leave additional opportunities for Forsett and Leon Washington. Both appear worthy of getting playing time this season. Washington's surgically repaired leg is closer to full strength now than it was last season. Rules changes on kickoffs will diminish Washington's impact in that part of the game. It seems to me the Seahawks should make an effort to get more from him on offense.

3. Draft choice on bubble. After two drafts with Pete Carroll as head coach, the Seahawks have more players selected under him (17) than they have remaining from the combined draft classes of Jim Mora (four) and Mike Holmgren (eight). Most 2011 draft choices appear quite likely to earn roster spots this season. One player, fifth-round choice Mark LeGree, faces stiff competition. Rookie free agent Jeron Johnson has had a strong camp and has done more during preseason games. The Seahawks have quite a few young prospects in the secondary. Will any of them catch our attention with big plays in this game?

Three things: 49ers-Texans

August, 27, 2011
Three things to watch for in the San Francisco 49ers' preseason home game against the Houston Texans at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Quarterback rotation: Jim Harbaugh plans to give backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick snaps with the first-team offense. It's possible starter Alex Smith could reenter the game for some situational work. Harbaugh wouldn't be the first NFL coach this summer to take that somewhat novel approach. Kansas City's Todd Haley did it against the St. Louis Rams on Friday night. Harbaugh's thinking is sound. There's a good chance Kaepernick will play at some point during the regular season. Smith has played all 16 games only once in a season. Kaepernick should be better for his work against an opposing first-team defense.

2. Stadium safety: Security should be tight at Candlestick Park one week after a shooting injured two outside the stadium. Here's hoping this is one angle requiring little followup after the game. There should be no bad blood between fans of these teams.

3. Snap counts at center. With three NFC West games overlapping Saturday night, I'll be hard pressed to count snaps for Jonathan Goodwin and Adam Snyder. We're getting to the point, however, where the starting offensive line would ideally come together for the season. The assumption early in camp was that the newly signed Goodwin would replace David Baas, who signed with the New York Giants in free agency. Snyder has previously spent his career at guard and right tackle. Goodwin signed a three-year, $10.8 million contract with a $2 million signing bonus and $1 million salary this season. Snyder's deal averages slightly less annually. It calls for $2 million in salary this season. The salary disparity between the two isn't significant enough to force one player into the lineup over the other.

Three things: Rams-Chiefs

August, 26, 2011
Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason road game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Run defense: Coach Steve Spagnuolo blamed "gap integrity" for the Rams' generous run defense against Tennessee last week. He will be looking for improvement in this game. Veteran linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga are joining James Laurinaitis in the starting lineup for the first time since signing with the team this summer. I would expect them to remain in the lineup, most likely, for the regular season. It's important for them to get some time together in game situations before the regular-season opener against Philadelphia. Poppinga, 31, missed 10 games to a knee injury while with Green Bay last season. He started 15 games in 2007 and has subsequently seen his totals decline each season (12 in 2008, three in 2009 and one last season). The Rams held up well against Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles last season until allowing an 80-yard run. Kansas City led the NFL in rushing yards, so this should be a good test while the starters are on the field.

2. Offensive consistency. The Rams opened their most recent preseason game with an 83-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to Brandon Gibson. The starters went to sleep on offense from that point forward. Steven Jackson found little room to run. Bradford took some big hits. The Rams will be looking for more consistency in this game. Their starting offensive line will be back together with left guard Jacob Bell's expected return from injury. Getting that group some time together will be welcome for the Rams.

3. Wide receiver competition. There should be time for Rams coaches to work backup receivers into the rotation while the starting offense is still on the field. Donnie Avery, Mardy Gilyard and Danario Alexander are the ones most likely fighting for a roster spot at this time, in my view. Avery and Gilyard appear to have the best chance in part because Alexander's chronic knee problems raise questions about his ability to hold up over time. Avery and Gilyard also made more of their opportunities in the game against Tennessee. Both need to play well, however, because the team could always bring back Mark Clayton once Clayton's surgically repaired knee has healed sufficiently.

Three things: 49ers-Raiders

August, 20, 2011
Three things to watch for in the San Francisco 49ers' preseason game against the Oakland Raiders on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Progress on offense. I was among those cutting the 49ers some slack offensively following their rough outing against New Orleans in the preseason opener. They were one week into practicing with newly signed players, including quarterback Alex Smith. The Saints threw quite a few blitzes at them to make life more difficult, especially for an offense so reliant upon timing. It's reasonable to expect at least some progress against the Raiders. The 49ers should have quick passes built into their offense to beat pressure. Smith hasn't been the most accurate passer over the years, though. I'll be watching to see how accurately he delivers some of the quick-slant throws that will be a staple of the offense under coach Jim Harbaugh. Let's also watch to see whether Smith can get the ball to Braylon Edwards downfield.

2. More Aldon Smith. The 49ers' rookie outside linebacker was the most impressive NFC West first-round draft choice during preseason openers. That won't necessarily mean much for the long term, but those casting Smith as a developmental player have seen preliminary indications Smith will provide immediate contributions as well. The Raiders gave up only two sacks in their opener against Arizona, none on starting quarterback Jason Campbell. Smith had five tackles, one sack and a forced fumble against the Saints, a good start.

3. Right guard Chilo Rachal. I know, I know. Few things in life generate as much excitement and fulfillment as watching an offensive guard slog through a preseason game. But with Harbaugh recently singling out Rachal as one of the players enjoying a strong camp, I wondered to what degree there was a self-fulfilling element to the coach's comments. There is some evidence Rachal has made progress. He reported to camp about 20-25 pounds lighter than his playing weight last season, significant given the lack of player oversight during the lockout. I was among those last season who thought the 49ers would have benefited from a more experienced, steadier player lined up next to rookie right tackle Anthony Davis. Can Rachal help stabilize his side of the line?

Three things: Seahawks-Vikings

August, 20, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Seattle Seahawks' preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET:

1. Tarvaris' timing: The Seahawks expect starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to play more extensively than he did during the preseason opener. Jackson should be sharper after having a second week of practice time with his new team. He'll also have starting receivers Sidney Rice and Mike Williams on the field with him, a change from last week. Seattle will be looking for Jackson to establish connections with Rice, Williams and/or tight end Zach Miller. Jackson has been around long enough to know preseason games aren't all that important, but human nature dictates he'll want to look good against his former team.

2. Red Bryant's return. The Seahawks' run defense wasn't the same after a knee injury removed Bryant from the defensive line last season. Teams around the division noticed. I was chatting with a coach from another NFC West team this summer when our attention turned to Seattle's defensive line. "Red Bryant is a huge man," the coach said with some awe. Bryant missed the preseason opener, but the Seahawks expect him to start at defensive end against the Vikings. Bryant appears ready to go. Coach Pete Carroll on Thursday: "Yeah, Red’s antics were up today. He was having fun playing football. I think when he tackled Dominique Byrd about 25 yards downfield in a full-speed, live tackle, we realized that Red was officially back. That came just two plays after he thumped Josh Portis in the back on a pass rush, so Red is alive and well. When you’re cooling Red down, that’s when you like him the most."

3. Pass protection. Russell Okung's unavailability at left tackle pushes Tyler Polumbus into the lineup. Polumbus has continually exceeded expectations. He's been quite steady for a backup at such a difficult position. I'm more interested in seeing how right guard John Moffitt and right tackle James Carpenter fare in pass protection. Both are rookies. Both had some issues in protection during the preseason opener. Carpenter's conditioning appeared to be his biggest obstacle last week. He wore down. The Seahawks will need 60 minutes from him every week during the regular season. Wearing down isn't a viable option.

Three things: Rams-Titans

August, 20, 2011
Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason game against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Three wide receivers: Not just any three. Mardy Gilyard, Danario Alexander and Donnie Avery are battling for what could be a single roster spot. Each offers something different to the offense. Each carries injury baggage. Gilyard's shiftiness and special-teams value sets him apart from the other two. Alexander has size on his side. Avery's pure speed and past production has some appeal. Gilyard had wrist surgery this offseason and has suffered from migraines in the past. Alexander has had five surgeries on his left knee. Avery is coming off a torn ACL that sidelined him last season. Avery's knee has required rest during training camp. Of the three, Avery was most impressive during practices late in the week.

2. Steven Jackson's debut. The Rams expect running back Steven Jackson to make his 2011 preseason debut. It's the first time we'll see Jackson working within the Rams' new offense in a game situation. The team rested Jackson to protect a sore hip during the week. Keeping him healthy is critical. The Rams expect Jackson to catch more passes out of the backfield this season. Jackson expects to have more options running on the perimeter. It's doubtful Jackson will play enough to explore all the offense offers him, but we should see a few glimpses.

3. Quinn off the edge. Rookie first-round draft choice Robert Quinn has gone through camp without attracting a great deal of attention. That is because the Rams are already set at defensive end with Chris Long and James Hall. Having Long and Hall in place allows Quinn to come along at a slower pace after sitting out his final season at North Carolina. The Rams have seen flashes of the pure pass-rush ability that led Mel Kiper Jr. to say Quinn could have been a No. 1 overall pick had the NCAA not ruled him ineligible last season. Quinn was active during his preseason debut. He should become increasingly comfortable after the long layoff.

Three things: Cardinals-Packers

August, 19, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' Week 2 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Pass-rush inflation: The Cardinals eagerly await a breakout pass-rushing performance from one of their younger players, notably rookie Sam Acho or second-year pro O'Brien Schofield. If it happens, great for Arizona, but let's see how many come at Aaron Rodgers' expense. Rodgers took zero sacks against Cleveland in the Packers' preseason opener. He left the game with a glittering stat line: 6-of-8 passing for 74 yards, one touchdown and a 142.7 passer rating. Backups Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell combined to take five sacks once Rodgers left the game. Side note on preseason sacks: Carolina led the NFL with 19 last preseason. The Panthers had only 31 during the regular season, which ranked tied for 20th. DeMarcus Ware, the NFL's leader in sacks with 15.5 last season, had one-half sack in four preseason games.

2. Running back ball security. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams both lost the football after being ruled down in the Cardinals' preseason opener. Fumbling has been a touchy subject in Arizona over the last couple of seasons. Tim Hightower, since traded, fumbled 10 times over the last two seasons, tied with Ahmad Bradshaw for most in the league. Wells fumbled five times during that span, tied for eighth-most among players with fewer than 300 rushing attempts since 2009 (fumble totals count those on receptions). This is a subject the Cardinals do not need to revisit anytime soon.

3. Kevin Kolb affirmations. The Cardinals' new quarterback has been "solid" and even a "godsend" for Arizona during his first two weeks practicing with the team. Anything less than a stellar performance from Kolb against Green Bay will be ... well, pretty much irrelevant, this being preseason. Once again, let's watch to see how well the Cardinals protect him. That matters most at this point. The Packers sacked Kurt Warner twice, forcing fumbles both times, during a 2009 preseason game between the teams. They knocked out Kolb with a concussion during the 2010 regular-season opener.

Three things: Rams-Colts

August, 13, 2011
Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. A Rams victory: The Colts are 4-22 in the preseason since 2005, and now they're playing without Peyton Manning. The Colts have been a star-reliant team without as much depth through their roster. That makes it tougher for them to hold up over four quarters in games featuring backup players so prominently. The Rams' depth has been improving steadily. So, while preseason outcomes generally do not matter much, this game could be an exception. The Rams should control it most of the way. They have gone 6-2 in preseason games under coach Steve Spagnuolo.

2. Signs of separation at receiver. The Rams come into this game with 12 wide receivers on their roster and only a general idea how the top five or six will shake out. Donnie Avery and fourth-round choice Greg Salas aren't expected to play. Both are resting injuries. Mardy Gilyard also could miss the game. We know where Danny Amendola stands as the slot receiver. The Rams will be looking for Brandon Gibson to build upon a promising start to camp. They need free-agent addition Mike Sims-Walker to earn a prominent role in the offense. Sims-Walker had 14 touchdown receptions for Jacksonville over the past two seasons. No wide receiver has more than five scoring receptions for the Rams over the same span. New coordinator Josh McDaniels likes taller receivers. Nine of the 12 receivers on the roster are at least 6-foot-1. Will any come up big before the regular season?

3. New blood at linebacker. Mainstay James Laurinaitis will not play. He's resting a strained pectoral muscle. Free-agent addition Ben Leber will also sit out. He signed with the team late in the week. Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga are two linebackers to watch. Both are veterans and Poppinga is an older one (he turns 32 next month). Another veteran, Na'il Diggs, hung around on the roster even after Leber's addition. He turned 33 last month. While the Rams have new blood at linebacker, it's not young blood. Getting through this game without new injuries at the position will be important. Poppinga and Diggs missed a combined 14 games to injury last season.

Three things: 49ers-Saints

August, 12, 2011
Three things to watch for in the San Francisco 49ers' exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints on Friday night. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET.

Colin Kaepernick's debut: Coach Jim Harbaugh said he plans for the rookie second-round draft choice to play extensively. Alex Smith will start at quarterback and command some attention as well, but we know what he can do. Kaepernick has the mobility and overall athletic skills to shine in a setting as unorganized (relatively speaking) as an NFL exhibition game. I suspect the 49ers would be more impressed seeing Kaepernick do the conventional things well. They'll want to see him operate efficiently in the huddle, getting plays called with time to spare on the clock. They'll want to see him successfully execute center-quarterback exchanges, a problem for the teams I've seen practice this summer. They'll want to see Kaepernick throw the ball on rhythm. They know he's a sensational athlete and they'll welcome seeing that side of him as well. But they also want to see him master the basics.

Aldon Smith as a pass-rusher: Let's count how many times the 49ers' first-round draft choice matches up in one-on-one rushing situations. The 49ers drafted him to do more than that, but Smith must rush the passer effectively to justify his status as the seventh overall choice. Let's also remember that Smith doesn't need to justify his draft status in his first exhibition game. DeMarcus Ware had one tackle and no sacks in his exhibition debut for the Dallas Cowboys back in 2005. He turned out OK. We'll wait until at least Smith's second exhibition game before passing judgment. I kid, but Ware did have one sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and an interception in his second exhibition game.

Tempo and overall efficiency. Harbaugh has emphasized tempo in everything the 49ers do. The previous coaching staff too frequently had trouble getting offensive plays into the huddle on time. Smith has had only one week of practices under Harbaugh's watch. Harbaugh has been accustomed to using hand signals, not headset communications, for relaying play calls. There's no sense in expecting a finished product at such an early stage. This game stands as a good trial run for logistics. A realistic goal: no penalties for delay of game.
Looking back upon three things discussed here heading into the Seattle Seahawks' preseason opener Thursday night:

The quarterback rotation: Watching No. 2 quarterback Charlie Whitehurst was a top priority after Tarvaris Jackson and Josh Portis commanded significant attention to this point in training camp. Whitehurst was mostly solid. He did not hurt his cause. The pass he made to Dominique Byrd for a 29-yard gain showed Whitehurst can throw intermediate and longer passes well. Whitehurst fared better than Jackson and the first-team offense, so his stock, though still vulnerable, did not take a hit. Seattle played without its top three wide receivers.

New toys on offense: Newly signed receiver Sidney Rice didn't even play. Coach Pete Carroll held out Rice as a precaution, citing a minor injury. Jackson threw twice for newly signed tight end Zach Miller. The Chargers were offsides both times, wiping out incomplete passes. Another newcomer, left guard Robert Gallery, got thrown back violently on one early play. First-round pick James Carpenter played extensively and got some push in the running game. He had some issues in protection. Overall, though, getting reps should benefit him.

Youth movement on defense: The young linebackers and safeties were active. Strong safety Kam Chancellor was aggressive against the run, as advertised. He had a tackle for loss. Safety Mark LeGree got credit for no passes defensed on the stat sheet. I saw him play a role in a couple of incomplete passes, however. Jeron Johnson broke up two passes and had one tackle for loss. Another rookie, linebacker K.J. Wright, led the team in tackles with seven, including a couple after short gains. Officials flagged him for a horse-collar tackle. Pass-rusher Jameson Konz, a project as a former receiver and tight end, collected a sack.

Three things: Cardinals-Raiders

August, 11, 2011
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' exhibition opener against the Oakland Raiders on Thursday night. Kickoff is set for 10 p.m. ET.

Kevin Kolb's protection: All eyes will focus on Kolb during his debut behind center for the Cardinals. That includes all eyes from the Raiders' defense. Arizona is breaking in new starters at both guard spots. Right tackle Brandon Keith is returning from knee surgery. Coordinating protection during the exhibition season, when game-planning is light, becomes nearly impossible if an opposing defense decides to unleash blitzes. Kolb will have a tough enough time with the basics after only one week with his new team. An impressive performance from him will qualify as a pleasant surprise under the circumstances. Advice to Kolb: Don't throw high for Larry Fitzgerald over the middle. Matt Leinart did so in the first exhibition game last year. Fitzgerald absorbed a shot to the legs, injuring his knee and affecting him early in the season.

The running backs: Beanie Wells suffered an injury during the 2010 exhibition season that eventually required surgery. He needs to get to the regular season healthy. Second-round draft choice Ryan Williams has nothing to lose at this point. He's a rookie. The pressure is on Wells. Playing later into the game against Oakland's backups could put Williams in better position to shine. The Cardinals will also be watching to see how their running backs handle their duties in pass protection. No one wants to get the new quarterback roughed up.

Young pass-rushers: As much as the Cardinals would love for safety Rashad Johnson to shine in Adrian Wilson's absence, the safety position isn't what threatens to hold back this defense the most. An inability to acquire and/or develop outside pass-rushers stands as easily the biggest issue for Arizona on defense. The Cardinals pursued a trade for Kamerion Wimbley before last season, but Arizona's concerns about his contract helped steer Wimbley to the Raiders. O'Brien Schofield and rookie Sam Acho are two young pass-rushing prospects to watch for Arizona.