Keys to the Game: Arizona

Posted Oct 3, 2012

1. Unhappy Returns

It’s not exactly groundbreaking material here nor does it take some sort of genius to figure out what the Rams top priority to slow down when playing Arizona. More specifically, it’s not rocket science to know WHO the Rams need to slow down to try to come up with a win against the Cardinals.

Punt returner/cornerback/one man Rams wrecking crew Patrick Peterson made sure that every Rams fan cringed at the mere calling of his name with repeated huge plays at the team’s expense in 2011.

Peterson’s signature moment was the dazzling 99-yard return for a touchdown in overtime to hand the Rams a heartbreaking loss and struck again with an 80-yard return for a score in the second meeting in St. Louis.

All told, Peterson posted 222 punt return yards against the Rams in 2011, making him the eighth player in league history to break the 200 punt return yard mark in one season and fourth best total in league history against one opponent.

In facing Peterson, the Rams will be finishing the third leg of a murderer’s row of dynamic returners that started with Devin Hester in week 3 and followed with Leon Washington last week.

Peterson is limited exclusively to punt returns which puts the onus on Rams punter Johnny Hekker to ensure that Peterson simply doesn’t get any easy opportunities for returns.

Directional kicking was something the Rams didn’t do well last year and though the punt coverage team has been solid this season, denying Peterson a chance to even return the ball is the best defense against him.

“I think that punt returns for touchdowns don’t just happen all the time,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Patrick had a few last year and hopefully, he’ll have some going forward, but he’s working at it just like he did last year. I think teams maybe are punting away from him and are trying to make sure they account for him, much like you do when you play a team like the Bears and they have a guy like (WR) Devin Hester back there. I don’t know that there’s anything you can do other than keep working and hopefully, Patrick will get an opportunity to break one, one of these games.”

2. What a Rush

If there’s a team in the league that can relate to the Rams in terms of injuries along the offensive line and playing with a patchwork front five, it’s Arizona. The Cardinals lost tackle Levi Brown to a torn triceps in August and have had to replace him with D’Anthony Batiste.

Opposite Batiste is rookie right tackle Bobby Massie, who struggled last week against Miami’s Cameron Wake. Wake posted 4.5 sacks in that game as the Dolphins finished with eight sacks.

On the interior, the Cardinals have a solid, veteran group in left guard Daryn Colledge, center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Adam Snyder.

For the season, Arizona has yielded 14 sacks for a loss of 89 yards, the same number the Rams have allowed.

“I think we definitely can’t allow that to happen,” Whisenhunt said. “I certainly hope that doesn’t happen this week. We’re working to try to get better at that. We’ve got some new players, some young players on that line and they struggled in last week’s game. The challenge, in a short week, is to work on some of the technique things that were creating those issues and hopefully we’ll be better this week.”

Also like the Rams, Arizona has struggled to get the push necessary for a consistently productive running game.

The Cardinals are averaging just 68 yards on the ground per game, which ranks 30th in the NFL.

Harassing Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb and limiting the run game of Cardinals back Ryan Williams will be high on the priority list for the Rams in their pursuit of a victory.

3. Finding Fitz

One of the most respected and well-liked players in the league, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald has long been a thorn in the side of the Rams. Fitzgerald has 13 touchdowns in 16 games against the Rams in his career.

Those touchdowns are the most Fitzgerald has against any opponent for his career. For his career, he has 91 catches for 1,190 yards and three 100-yard receiving days against the Rams.

Fitzgerald got off to a slow start in the first two weeks but has picked it back up the past two as he and Kolb have formed a connection. He’s also benefited from an emerging young group of wideouts next to him, particularly Andre Roberts.

“He’s an elite receiver, one of the best in the business, a future Hall of Famer,” Finnegan said. “They have so many different weapons but Fitzgerald is a guy you have always got to be aware of where he is at all times. He’s a play maker and a difference maker for that team. We’ve got our hands full.”

Of course, the Rams cornerbacks aren’t the same old group that Fitzgerald has grown accustomed to seeing. Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and even nickel corner Bradley Fletcher have been especially stingy this season.

The Rams have allowed just two passing touchdowns which ties them for the best mark in the NFL in that category. The team also sits 12th in the league in total pass defense, giving up just 213.5 yards per game through the air.

As is always the case when playing the Cardinals, finding Fitzgerald and keeping his production to a minimum is paramount to success.

4. Where’s Wilson?

Speaking of players who have terrorized the Rams for seemingly forever, safety Adrian Wilson remains an important cog in Arizona’s stout defensive group.

Wilson has essentially built his good name in league circles with repeatedly dominant performances against the Rams. He has more sacks (7.5) and interceptions (six) against the Rams than any other team and four picks in the past six meetings. For good measure, he also had a blocked field goal back in 2010.

Surrounded by loads of talented defenders such as linebacker Daryl Washington, end Calais Campbell, Peterson and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, Wilson remains the heart and soul of Arizona’s defense.

Wilson and his secondary struggled last week against Miami as rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 431 yards. Surely, that group will be looking to rebound this week against the Rams and quarterback Sam Bradford.

And, as always, Wilson will likely be the driving force attempting to make that happen.

“Wilson is still playing at a Pro Bowl level,” running back Steven Jackson said. “He’s still playing really good football right now.”

5. Pursuing Paydirt

With the way the NFC West Division is trending toward staunch defense and hard nosed, low scoring slugfests, it’s safe to expect the scoreboard to stay relatively dormant for most intra-division matchups.

The Rams won one such slugfest last week on the strength of kicker Greg Zuerlein’s right leg. But the reality is that the Rams were unable to convert on numerous opportunities to put that game away because the offense couldn’t find a way to get into the end zone.

In fact, that’s been a regular problem in the first quarter of the season. Through four games, the Rams are tied for 30th in the league in red zone production. They have ventured inside the opponent’s 20-yard line nine times with only three touchdowns and five field goals for a total of 37 points to show for it.

Those numbers don’t even include the trips inside opponent’s territory that haven’t gone inside the 20. The reasons for the Rams’ struggles at putting it into the end zone are numerous but many are things that can be fixed.

Perhaps nothing has hampered the Rams more than costly penalties at the worst time. Last week against the Seahawks, a holding penalty negated a Jackson touchdown run.

That has left Fisher putting even more emphasis this week on finishing drives.

“We have to play better offensively,” Fisher said. “We haven’t been scoring touchdowns like we should and that’s the reason. Once you get to that point where you are able to score against really good defenses then I think you can expect good things out of this team. That’s been an emphasis for us this week, just trying to get the ball in the end zone.”