First Impressions: Arizona Cardinals

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 23: Running back Darren McFadden #20 of the Oakland Raiders avoids defensive back Adrian Wilson #24 of the Arizona Cardinals during a preseason game on August 23, 2008 at the McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, California. (Photo by Greg Trott/Getty Images)

When the Arizona Cardinals thought they might end up with fan-inspired quarterback controversy after they made the decision to start Derek Anderson, they nipped it in the bud by just flat out releasing former first round draft choice, Matt Lienart. When the Oakland Raiders decided to pull their offseason acquisition at quarterback, Jason Campbell, in favor of Bruce Gradkowski, Raiders’ fans thought they might be entering a quarterback controversy period of their own. But Head Coach Tom Cable squashed any type of controversy labeling right from the get go. So far this year each of both of these teams has gotten one victory. Both of these teams have beat the St. Louis Rams in one game and got rolled up by a more difficult opponent, the Tennessee Titians and the Atlanta Falcons respectively, in their other game.

Needless to say, it’s really hard to judge what you can expect from each of these teams on Sunday. The Cardinals are just one season removed from the playoffs and just two years removed from a Super Bowl run and will they be looking to make the Raiders their scapegoat this Sunday as they attempt to rebound from an embarrassing loss. Meanwhile the Raiders haven’t reached the playoffs since 2002 and to be frank, they haven’t even been close. While they have managed some 1-1 starts over that period, the last time they started a season by winning two of their first three was in 2004, the year Kerry Collins took over and Rich Gannon retired.

By bringing in Paul Hackett, who brought Bruce Gradkowski with him from Tampa Bay, the Raiders may have stumbled upon the solution to their woes. For the moment, it appears as though the Cardinals may be re-entering their woes.

No team in the NFL had to deal with as much loss of talent as the Cardinals incurred this offseason. The big names they lost cannot be replaced and they included: Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin, Kurt Warner, Bryant McFadden, Antrel Rolle, and Neil Rackers.

However, the Cardinals are still a dangerous and talented team. Wide Receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best in the league at what he does. It’s been suggested that the Raiders cover him with Nnamdi Asomugha to shut him out of this game; or to see if Anderson would test Asomugha while he is covering Fitzgerald. It’s not a bad suggestion, but the chess piece that would be unaccounted for in this scenario is Steve Breaston. Breaston already has just as many catches as Fitzgerald this year, each with ten, but Breaston is getting an average of 14 yards per catch.

Last year’s first round draft pick, running back Beanie Wells, had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. In the mean time, Tim Hightower is leading the Cardinals in rushing yards with 169 on 24 carries—an average of seven yards per carry. Hightower could prove to be yet another challenge for the Raiders new rushing defense to attempt to contain. But on the other hand, Hightower has been tackled for a loss six times, fumbled twice-losing both, and has a long carry of 80 yards thus reducing his rushing average per carry significantly minus that long gainer.

Quarterback Derek Anderson is proving himself to be a one-year Pro Bowl wonder thus far in his career post 2006. Anderson has struggled this year with accuracy issues and having Fitzgerald miss significant time in the preseason has put this hook-up in a position where they have not been able to get their timing down.

Currently, the once-high powered passing attack of the Cardinals is old news. They are trailing the inconsistent Oakland offense in almost every category:

Granted neither group is producing the type of stats that you would expect to see from a playoff team, but that’s just the thing—it wasn’t too long ago that the Cards’ were the best team in their division. Now their offense is not even as good as the lowly Raiders.

Defensively, the Cardinals have other problems. They are currently allowing over 380 yards per game, they are giving up 27 points per game, and giving their opponents a rate of 51.4 percent on their third down conversions. They also only have three team sacks, but one of the things they still continue to do well is force turnovers. So far this year, they’ve recovered six fumbles and intercepted three passes.

Darnell Dockett, their defensive tackle, is one of their most highly regarded defensive players. Tom Cable said he is concerned about Dockett in one-on-one blocking situations when the Raiders drop back to pass. But so far this season, Dockett has underperformed, accumulating only nine tackles and he has yet to reach the quarterback this year. Another threat from the Cardinals defense will come from their incredibly gifted pair of safeties, Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson. Neither of these guys has any real weaknesses to exploit, so the Raiders will have to be crisp and precise on their route running and run blocking to avoid these two guys.

Cornerback Greg Toler leads the team in tackles this season, a stat generally reserved for safeties and linebackers. Against the Rams, Toler made thirteen tackles as the Cardinals struggled to contain the Rams’ wide receivers. Look for Bruce Gradkowski and the Raiders to get after Toler early and often.

Arizona has a decent linebackers group that includes Paris Lenon, rookie Daryl Washington, and crafty veteran Joey Porter. So far this season, the trio has combined for 38 tackles. They are three good players and the Oakland offensive unit will have to account for their whereabouts on passes and run plays Sunday.

Arizona does have a winning record outside the NFC West since the start of last season. They lost three of their first four home games last season and needed an interception return for a touchdown, plus a goal-line stand, to beat Houston in the one home game Arizona won during that stretch. However, the Cardinals have a lot riding on this game. It’s their 2010 home opener, plus if San Diego beats Seattle and the Cardinals beat the Raiders, Arizona would stand atop the division with a 2-1 record heading into Week 4.

Prediction: So far this year, I’m two for two on these, although the Raiders offense has been underperforming my expectations. Having Bruce Gradkowski bring his energy and intensity back to the huddle from the opening snap plus the return of Michael Bush to the Raiders line-up should aid in the Raiders goal of getting to 24 points per game. As Tom Cable told the media, “If we get to 24 points per game, we’re going to be really tough to beat.”

Being that the goal is 24, I’ll give it to them this week. Raiders 24-Cardinals 20. The Raiders will be on the winning side of things heading into Houston next week.

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