Nov. 25, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: St. Louis Rams players line up against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona Cardinals: Interview with Ramblin' Fan Editor Nathan Kearns

The Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams are rivals, and the two will both be in contention in 2013.

Rams fans are excited, and Nathan Kearns counts as one of those fans. The Ramblin’ Fan editor answered questions about the offseason improvements both teams made, how the two teams stack up against the NFC West, whether the Rams will make the playoffs and which team has the better quarterback in an email interview, and I answered the same questions (about the Cardinals) on Ramblin’ Fan.

How well will the Cardinals and Rams fare in 2013? Find out in this in-depth interview.

Did the St. Louis Rams or Arizona Cardinals improve more in the offseason?

That is a tough question considering both teams had a successful draft and made some key upgrades in areas of need. However, I would give the edge offensively to Arizona, simply because their roster had so much room for improvement, but I will give St. Louis the nod on defense. 

On offense, the Cards needed a quarterback, running back, and essentially an entirely new offensive line. Carson Palmer is infinitely better than any quarterback on their roster in 2012, Rashard Mendenhall (if healthy) should be adequate in the backfield, and the returning Levi Brown paired with the two rookie guards should be an improvement over that mess-of-a-group from last season. Add on Ryan Swope to the receiving corps, that their offense could be a force in the NFC if the bookends can keep him upright.

However, on defense, the Rams went out and either plugged or upgraded every position of weakness from the 2012 roster. By retaining William Hayes, St. Louis has their entire defensive line rotation back, which lead the NFL by accounting for 39 of the team’s 52 sacks. The only weakness in the linebacker corps was on the strongside, which they filling with Alec Ogletree, the top 4-3 OLB prospect in the 2013 NFL Draft class. Their other weakness was safety, namely Craig Dahl. They will have a fully healthy Darian Stewart (who was Top 5 in sacks, pass deflections, and hurries on the quarterback among safeties in 2011), on top of adding the biggest power-hitting safety from the draft in T.J. McDonald.

Will the Rams be able to repeat their success against the Cardinals and NFC West?
The St. Louis Rams should have nearly identical success against the Cardinals and the NFC West, but we will have to see how the roster shakes out by August. The Rams simply match up well with the NFC West, both offensive and defensively. Sam Bradford has historically played significantly better against 3-4 base defenses, with his top three performances of 2012 coming against the Cardinals, Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers. 
For the Cardinals, they match up well against the defense, without a true No. 1 wide receiver that could be keyed on by Patrick Peterson. The St. Louis’ line, even last year with significant injuries on the right side, dominated against 3 to 5-man blitzes, allowing Bradford to excel in the short, quick passing game. The Cardinals do not have the depth or speed at cornerback or safety to match up with Lance Kendrick and Jared Cook at tight end, or Chris Givens and Tavon Austin at receiver. Jerraud Powers and Antoine Cason both ranked 80th in the league or worse last season at corner, which is not a significant upgrade over William Gay. Even if they choose to put Mathieu in the slot, scouts lambasted his inability to cover down the field, or to keep stride with quicker receivers, which wouldn’t bode well against either Austin or Givens, and certainly not against Jared Cook. 

Offensively, the Cardinals’ success or downfall will hinge on their ability to protect the quarterback. The Rams’ defensive line rotation is the best in the NFL, and with Arizona returning Bobby Massie and Lyle Sendlein, they could be in trouble… again. Even with Levi Brown returning, it isn’t a huge upgrade on the blindside. In his last full season, he allowed 11 sacks, 5 hits on the quarterback, and 40 hurries, ranking him 57th out of 76 offensive tackles in 2011. The Cardinals saw what pressure on the quarterback can lead to against a St. Louis secondary, one that is not scared to take a risk on an errant pass from a quarterback in duress. 

The Rams should finish somewhere along the lines of 5-1 or 4-2 in the NFC West this season.

Is Sam Bradford better than Carson Palmer?
The term “better” is fairly subjective, so it that will be hard to answer. If the question was who would I rather have as my signal caller next season, the answer would be Sam Bradford. 

Carson Palmer played well in 2012, and put up some big numbers as the leader of the team. However, that 4,018 passing yards figure can be a bit misleading, especially given the offense that was run in Oakland. The Raiders were a pass-first offense, somewhat out of necessity, as a result of 1) no running game and 2) being down in the 2nd half of nearly every game. In fact, they attempted only 376 rushes in 2012, ranking 28th in the NFL. As a result of being down, Palmer was allotted plenty of attempts to tally that large figure. Three of Palmer’s better statistic games came against the Miami Dolphins (27th) in passing yards allowed), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (32nd), and Cleveland Browns (25th). Big numbers against bad defensive secondary, in garbage time, is nothing special… In fact, Palmer never threw for over 300 yards in any of the Raiders’ four wins last season. Which goes to the next point; winning. 

The long-time Bengals’ signal caller won only four games in Oakland, two of those coming against the Kansas City Chiefs, and one coming against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Putting up big numbers in garbage time clearly does not equate to wins. When Palmer threw for over 350 yards, the Raiders held an 0-5 record, losing by an average of 14.6 points. To make matters worst, the Raiders play in the AFC West, the worst division in the NFL.
Aside from Bradford’s injury-plagued 2011 season, he has never led the team to fewer than seven wins, which is fairly impressive given the talent that has been around him since 2010. From 2010 to 2012, he has improved in total yards, yards per attempt, and touchdowns while decreasing his interceptions and fumbles despite a drastic increase in roster talent in the NFC and, more specially, in the NFC West. This will be the first time that Bradford has played in the same offensive system in consecutive seasons, and will also be the first time that he has an above-average group of receivers, albeit extremely young, and had a solid offensive line in front of him. 

Both should put up solid numbers in 2013, but it would be hard to imagine a scenario where Palmer comes out ahead of Bradford. Even last season, with unlimited attempts, playing one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, Palmer still threw fewer touchdowns, tossed more interceptions and lost more fumbles than Bradford. Carson Palmer also played behind an offensive line in Oakland that allowed only 26 sacks on 595 dropbacks; a line was graded out positively in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus. He will come into Arizona, where there are two rookies playing guard, and the other three projected starters gave up 27 combined sacks in their last year in the NFL (2012 for Sendlein and Massie; 2011 for Brown). Tack on the fact that Palmer will new offensive playbooks, no knowledge of the division, and be entering a team with a new head coach, and it would be easy to see how Palmer might struggle in 2013 …
Will the Rams make the playoffs?
My heart says yes, but my mind says… maybe. The NFC playoff picture is a bit mangled at the moment, with only a handful of “for sure” teams, and a baker’s dozen teams that could “potentially” make the cut. The Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, and Atlanta Falcons are locks… which leaves only one spot left for the Rams (since some team from the NFC East has to make it in). Minnesota, Chicago, and potentially the Buccaneers, Saints, and Giants and/or Redskins could all be fighting for that last piece. 
The Rams should win between 8 to 12 games this season, assuming they play at, or above, their abilities from last season. In reality, it is probably going to be closer to the lower end of that figure, which probably puts them outside of the playoffs. However, if they can sneak in a couple of wins, a 10-6 or 11-5 record would certainly have them in the last Wild Card slot.

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