Three things: Rams-Cardinals

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
6:00
PM ET
EARTH CITY, Mo. – Three things to watch in Sunday’s regular season opener between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals. The game kicks off at 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

1. Getting vertical

A big part of Sunday’s matchup is trying to know the unknown. Arizona has a new coaching staff and along with it new schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s the offense that figures to change the most under the guidance of new coach Bruce Arians.

Arians has long been known for his preference to attack down the field with a vertical passing game. That philosophy brought the offseason acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer.

As interim coach and offensive coordinator in Indianapolis in 2012, Arians was no different. The Colts tied for sixth in the league with 35 completions of 25-plus yards and ranked first in the league with an average depth of completion of 7.8 yards. Furthermore, the Colts tied for first with 59 pass attempts of 21-30 yards.

It’s safe to assume Arizona will want to attack in similar fashion, with Palmer targeting the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd. For that to work, the Cardinals will look to establish the running game with a variety of zone runs and then look to beat the Rams with play-action passes.

The onus then falls on two first-time starters at safety -- T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod -- to ensure that Palmer and Arians aren’t able to go deep for big plays.

“They do a good job of blending in misdirection runs, shifts, motion, different personnel groups, and off of that, throwing the ball down the field,” Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “That’s been his staple. That’s what he’s about. They get you so they can try to take the top off the defense, and if you get soft to cover that, that’s when the run game can get you. So we have to be well-balanced.”

2. A new look

Arizona isn’t the only team ready to debut a new-look offense Sunday. The Rams have worked hard to keep their new toys under wraps through training camp and the preseason, and Sunday will provide the first chance to see quarterback Sam Bradford with tight end Jared Cook, receiver Tavon Austin and others in what is expected to be a more spread-out, up-tempo offense.

Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has said his group plans to pick its spots in turning up the pace, and acknowledged that there will be some new things mixed in with what they’ve already done.

“At the end of the day it comes down to, we have a plan,” Schottenheimer said. “They have rules to adjust to our plays, and they have [a] defense that they’re going to show that we have seen in our rules. It certainly will have more to it [than] you saw in the preseason, but there’ll certainly be some similarities, as well.”

3. Under control

For the second consecutive year, the Rams have the league’s youngest squad. Of the 53 players on the active roster, 28 are entering their first or second season.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher & Co. have made it clear they don’t intend to use that as an excuse for any mistakes they make, but they’ve also acknowledged the reality that a younger team is going to be prone to some miscues. The Rams were hit with 43 penalties for 294 yards in the preseason, but many of those infractions came courtesy of players no longer on the roster or further down the depth chart.

Still, the Rams did lead the league in penalties in 2012. If nerves were ever going to be raging for a young team, opening day would seem to provide a platform. Avoiding penalties, blown coverages and other mental mistakes, and maintaining composure, will be imperative for a young Rams team.

"We’ll keep them rested and hydrated, but, yeah, they just need to keep their heart rate down and just relax,” Fisher said. “That’s the key for the young guys – just relax and go play hard.”

Nick Wagoner

ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter

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