ARIZONA CARDINALS (0-0) at ST. LOUIS RAMS (0-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET
TV: FOX (Ron Pitts, John Lynch, Nischelle Turner)
PREDICTION: Cardinals 29-15
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals took the gamble on QB Derek Anderson because he has the strong arm to stretch the field and keep secondaries honest. But look for coach Ken Whisenhunt's team to be more balanced and rely heavily on RBs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower out of the gate. The goal is to score early and put the pressure on Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford. He was efficient on third down in the final two preseason games, but he'll face a bigger variety of blitz packages now and will be prone to mistakes if RB Steven Jackson isn't productive on first and second down.
FAST FACTS: The Cardinals open on the road for the 20th time in the past 23 years. ... The Rams are 1-17 in division games since 2007, have lost 14 straight against NFC West rivals and 10 consecutive in division home games.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Running back Beanie Wells missed a third consecutive day of practice on Thursday, casting additional doubt on the chances of him playing at St. Louis on Sunday.
Wells suffered a bruised knee in the final preseason game, and coach Ken Whisenhunt wants to be conservative in deciding when it's safe for Wells to play.
"What concerns me is I don't want this to be something in Week 12, or Week 13 or Week 14 that you're having issues with," Whisenhunt said.
Whisenhunt thinks the Cardinals are deep enough at running back to survive without Wells, who led the team in rushing last year as a rookie despite not starting.
Tim Hightower, the starter, is healthy, and backup LaRod Stephens-Howling is assuming a bigger role in the offense this year. Veteran Jason Wright hasn't practiced this week because of turf toe, but he has enough experience to play well without practicing.
"We've got three running backs I feel are very good ones besides Beanie," Whisenhunt said. "It wouldn't be a stretch to bring Beanie to the game, knowing you could use him if you feel like he couldn't handle it. And if he doesn't, you're still O.K., because you're three-deep at that position."
As the Rams prepare for their season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, there is one obvious goal in mind: Start the season with a victory at home in a division game, something that hasn't happened for the team in a while.
In fact, the Rams have lost seven consecutive games to Arizona, and as bad as they have been overall the last three seasons, it's been worse at home and in the NFC West.
The Rams have lost 14 consecutive division games overall and have lost 10 consecutive division games at home. Since 2007, the Rams are 1-17 in division games and are 1-14 in division games at home since 2005. Overall, the Rams are 9-31 at home since 2005 and 2-22 since 2007.
Aside from the Cardinals, the Rams have also lost 10 straight to Seattle and four straight to San Francisco.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged noting to his team in their meeting Wednesday morning the importance of winning division games, especially against a team that has won the division title the last two seasons.
Said Spagnuolo, "That was actually the first overhead I put in the team meeting this morning, that we are playing the NFC West defending champs. They are something that we would like to be some day, so obviously one of our initial goals here is to win the NFC West. We get a chance to begin that path, or hopeful path, with the first game of the season. These guys, when I say these guys, our guys, our players are presented with a challenge right off the bat. I think that's a good thing."
The players believe they are primed to begin the season on the right foot, and they point to an adjusted approach by Spagnuolo in training camp.
Recently, running back Steven Jackson was asked who he was impressed with during training camp, and he named Spagnuolo.
Said Jackson, "His first year last year being a head coach, he didn't really quite know what to expect or how to go through a training camp and get the team ready. I've seen a difference in his coaching style and the way he's treating the guys and the way he's taking care of us."
Spagnuolo was trying to set a tone in his first camp, and after the first day followed that with five consecutive two-a-days with heavy hitting. This summer, there were fewer two-a-days and when there were, the second began in late afternoon or evening.
"We were still getting the physical play, but weren't going to the ground like we were last year," Jackson said. "We felt like the team, going into Seattle in Week 1 (in 2009), we felt like we were sluggish and tired, beat up still from training camp."
Numerous players talked about being "thrown a bone" by the head coach, like going to see a movie or other different approaches. In one practice, Spagnuolo staged a punt-catching competition between all three coordinators -- Pat Shurmur, offense; Ken Flajole, defense and Tom McMahon, special teams.
Ostensibly, whichever coach won would earn a night off from meetings for his unit. It turned out to be a tie, with the entire team getting the night off. That probably would have happened anyway, but the players hooted and hollered in support.
Said Jackson, "That was something that would've never happened last year. Normally with coach Spags, if something is scheduled to happen it was going to happen regardless, because he'd already made up his mind that it was going to happen. ... Once you get that bone, you go the extra mile for coach.
"I can really see that (he) has made a concerted effort to make sure we still play physical football, but he's making sure that we're still going to be able to go out and compete at a fast tempo."
Added cornerback Ron Bartell of the changes, "It was his first year as a head coach, so he kept pushing, pushing, pushing. Now he knows when to push and when to scale back a little bit. He's done a great job of that. The big picture is being prepared for Week 1."
Sunday, we'll learn just how prepared they are.
- WR Larry Fitzgerald has practiced fully all week and said he will be able to take all the snaps against the Rams on Sunday. Fitzgerald missed most of the preseason with a sprained MCL.
- WR Steve Breaston could return punts, but Whisenhunt also is considering rookies Max Komar and Andre Roberts, also receivers. Breaston has experience and Whisenhunt might feel comfortable with him, especially on the road.
- CB Trumaine McBride, beaten out for the starting right cornerback job, is learning to be the nickel and dime cornerback. Michael Adams could fill that role, too.
- RB Jason Wright hasn't practiced this week because of turf toe but is moving around well. He is a smart veteran who could play without much practice.
- NT Dan Williams, the first-round pick, isn't likely to start but he will probably split time with Bryan Robinson.
- RB LaRod Stephens-Howling should be a bigger part of the offense this season, especially with Beanie Wells (knee) questionable for this week -- and perhaps more. Whisenhunt will use him more in passing situations than he did last year when Stephens-Howling was a rookie.
- NT Bryan Robinson has held on to his starting job despite the drafting of Dan Williams in the first round. Both will play Sunday and Gabe Watson might be active, too, because he plays on special teams.
- S James Butler practiced again on a limited basis Thursday, and coach Steve Spagnuolo said it is hoped Butler will be active for Sunday's game against Arizona. It will likely come down to a game-time decision.
- WR Mark Clayton had his second day of practice Thursday after being acquired in a trade Monday. "He didn't skip a beat," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. Clayton is said to have gotten up to speed on the offense very quickly.
- OT Rodger Saffold will make his pro debut, starting at left tackle against the Cardinals. Starting is nothing new for the second-round pick. He started 41 of 42 games while at Indiana.
- LB Chris Chamberlain won the job as the nickel linebacker in training camp, a development that essentially knocked Bobby Carpenter off the roster. Chamberlain is also one of the team's best special teams players.
- OG Adam Goldberg has started 42 of the 80 games he has played in the NFL and at every position on the offensive line except center. However, this is the first time in his career that Goldberg enters the season as a starter. He will be at right guard Sunday against Arizona.
- C Jason Brown will be starting his 61st consecutive game Sunday against Arizona. Brown became a starter for Baltimore in Week 5 of the 2006 season and started the final 12 games at left guard. He switched to center in 2008 with the Ravens and has started all 16 games there the last two seasons with Baltimore and the Rams.