2012 NFC West Preview (cont.)
What the Cardinals do best: Get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald.
It's a fairly obvious and simple recipe for offensive success if you're the Cardinals: Put the ball in the hands of your unquestioned star. Even as Arizona searched last season for answers at quarterback and a second option at receiver to take the heat off Fitzgerald, the six-time Pro Bowl receiver still hauled in 80 passes for 1,411 yards. Both Fitzgerald and the Cardinals would like to see his TD numbers go up -- he had just eight last season -- but it's hard to complain about anything else. Fitzgerald remains one of the NFL's elite playmakers.
What the Cardinals need to do better: Force more turnovers.
Thanks to Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals came up with big play upon big play in the return game last season. Arizona's defense, however, did not enjoy a similar success rate. The Cardinals forced just 19 turnovers all last season -- 10 interceptions (26th best in the league) and nine fumbles (tied for 19th). The defense still managed to hold things together despite that, finishing in the middle of the pack in points allowed. Life would be a lot easier in the desert, though, if Arizona could pop the ball loose a few more times in 2012.
Which Cardinal needs to step up: Ryan Williams, running back.
Williams missed the entire 2011 season after tearing up his knee, so he will be what amounts to a redshirt rookie in 2012. Without Williams, the Cardinals leaned heavily on Beanie Wells, who responded with a 1,000-yard rushing season. Still, Arizona's run game did not strike fear into anyone. Williams, drafted in Round 2 of the 2011 draft, was supposed to provide that home-run punch. He should get an opportunity to do just that this year.
Predicted record: 6-10.
The Cardinals were pretty average on offense and pretty average on defense in 2011, so their 8-8 finishing record fit the bill. Unfortunately, it's hard to feel like Arizona really took a step forward in the past months, despite the draft additions of WR Michael Floyd and OT Bobby Massie, and the signing of free agent CB William Gay. Arizona still has not settled on a QB (Kevin Kolb or John Skelton) and there are huge question marks on the offensive line. A tricky schedule that features back-to-back away games against Green Bay and Atlanta won't help.
What the Rams do best: Ride Steven Jackson.
As the walls crumbled around him last season, Jackson put up nearly 1,500 total yards in 15 games. He was, for all intents and purposes, the St. Louis offense in 2011. And while the Rams no doubt want to improve on a pass game that finished 30th in the league last year, they'll try to set up the Sam Bradford-led aerial attack by punishing teams up front with Jackson, who has now topped 1,000 yards rushing in seven straight seasons. The arrival of second-round pick Isaiah Pead could take some of the onus off Jackson, which would allow him to maximize his impact.
What the Rams need to improve: Holding the line.
The Rams could not block on offense and they couldn't stop their opponents from running all over them on defense. Improving both of those areas will be atop new coach Jeff Fisher's list for this season. St. Louis must do a better job protecting Bradford, who missed six games due to injury in 2011. All told, Rams QBs were sacked more times (55) than any other team's signal-callers. And St. Louis also finished 31st in the league in run defense, allowing more than 150 yards per game on the ground. The Rams simply have to be better in the trenches this season.
Which Ram needs to step up: Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan, cornerbacks.
OK, that's two Rams, but St. Louis spent a lot of money to sign Finnegan away from Tennessee and rolled the dice on a red-flagged Jenkins in Round 2 of the draft in hopes of revamping its secondary. This duo should start the season paired at cornerback with another rookie, third-round pick Trumaine Johnson, also in the mix for playing time. St. Louis finished seventh in the league in pass defense last year, though teams barely had to throw due to the Rams' aforementioned inability to stop the run (only four teams saw less passes attempted against them in 2011). Assuming the Rams improve along the line, there should be more chances for their secondary to come up big.
Predicted record: 5-11.
Maybe Fisher will wave a magic wand and turn this Rams team into a contender overnight. The reality is that this looks more like a two- or three-year project. St. Louis has tough trips to Detroit and Chicago in September, plus a home back-to-back against Green Bay and New England in October, so staying on the right side of .500 might be tough. St. Louis should take some steps forward after a 2-14 2011, but the progress might be slow.