The 2012 NFL season kicks off for the Arizona Cardinals tomorrow afternoon in Glendale against the Seattle Seahawks. The Cardinals lead the overall series, 14-12. How ready are the Red Birds? Let's take a look at some concerns for head coach Ken Whisenhunt's squad as they prepare to meet their NFC West rival:
Is Beanie Wells hurt already?
The oft-injured halfback missed two games last season but still authored a solid season – 1,047 rushing yards (4.3 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. Very good if not great production. His best season in his young career. He missed three games the previous campaign though and is already dealing with a hamstring injury that limited him in practice on Friday.
The Ohio State product is expected to play but don't be surprised to see more of Ryan Williams against the Seahawks' tough run defense. LaRod Stephens-Howling will pitch in as well. Wells needs to stay healthy and productive to help take some pressure off quarterback John Skelton. Which leads to my next question……
Is John Skelton finally the answer at Quarterback?
Skelton won the quarterback duel this summer against the disappointing Kevin Kolb. Not exactly Joe Montana against Steve Young. The Fordham University product has a strong arm but needs to improve his accuracy – he completed just 55 percent of his pass attempts last season, which is way too low these days in the pass happy NFL. Skelton is 7-4 overall as a starter but he also has thrown more interceptions (16) than TD passes (13) in his young career.
Skelton's presence under center is good news for all-pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald averaged 2.5 more targets and scored six more touchdowns with Skelton at QB than with Kolb as the starting signal-caller in 2011.
Look for Fitzgerald to have another fine outing against Seattle – in his stellar career he has recorded more receptions (102) and receiving yards (1,371) against the Seahawks than against any other opponent.
Can the offensive line hold up?
The Red Birds are going to have three new starters along the offensive line Sunday – left tackle D'Anthony Batiste, right tackle Bobbie Massie and right guard Adam Snyder. It will be Batiste's first start at tackle and his first start at any position in the NFL since 2007. Yikes.
Massie, a fourth-round pick, is a rookie and Snyder is currently nursing a left elbow injury. It will be very interesting to see how well they provide running lanes for Wells and company and how much time they provide Skelton to throw. Will Skelton be running for his life on Sunday? We'll see.
Can the defense continue to improve?
Arizona's defense really improved the second half of last season and even better things are expected this time around. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is a master of bringing pressure from different areas in his aggressive 3-4 scheme. Even though he is a rookie, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is dangerous. Although just 5-10, Wilson has a strong arm and can run well and can elude pressure in the pocket. Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch is questionable for the game with back spasms – Wilson needs him in there to keep the Cardinals' defense honest and to help set up play action.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson is coming off a sensational rookie season in which he returned four punts for touchdowns. He also steadily improved as a cornerback as the year progressed and should be matched up against Sidney Rice, Seattle's top WR, on Sunday.
"I've been working more on my coverage skills and trying to be more of a shutdown corner versus an elite punt returner," Peterson told Yahoo Sports.
Peterson is one of the key cogs in Arizona's underrated defense, along with left inside linebacker Daryl Washington. Washington, who just inked a six-year contract extension last Thursday, paced the Cards with 111 tackles and added five sacks last season. Sixteen of Washington's tackles were for loss, the most by any Cardinals player since Clyde Simmons' 17 in 1995. Washington's speed and athleticism are key components in making Horton's defense work smoothly. Look for Arizona's defensive unit to take a step up this season. It will be up to the offense to try and keep pace.
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