As if there weren’t enough excitement at Rams Park about opening day, playing at home and playing a division rival add some zest to the proceedings.
“I love opening at home, but any time you’re playing in the division, it’s always special,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “So you mix the energy of opening weekend with a division game and the energy that comes with it, and you’ve got a giant ball of energy, I guess.”
So there will be no shortage of energy Sunday when the Rams open the 2013 season, and their 19th season in St. Louis, against the Arizona Cardinals. Kickoff is 3:25 p.m. in the Edward Jones Dome.
It has been seven weeks since the rookies convened in Earth City on July 22 for the start of training camp. And 10 days since the Rams last played a game — their preseason finale against Baltimore. Suffice it say, the Rams are eager to play a game that counts.
“The first week is always so long, because you get kind of a week and a half to look at a team,” Laurinaitis said Friday, following the last full-scale practice of the week. “You’re just looking for Sunday to come along — any second now.”
The wait is almost over. The most eagerly anticipated Rams opener in years is almost at hand.
The Rams haven’t won a season opener since 2006, an 18-10 victory at the dome over Denver to begin the Scott Linehan era. There will be 11 different starters from coach Jeff Fisher’s first Rams team of a year ago, and the 53-man roster includes 23 new players as compared to opening day 2012.
According to the research of ESPN.com’s Mike Sando, the Rams are entering the season as the NFL’s youngest team for the second year in a row, with an average age of 25.5 years. That young group will tackle what entering the season ranks as the second-toughest schedule in the league based on opponents’ won-lost records from 2012.
The Rams share the second-toughest slot with Detroit and New Orleans. All three squads are facing a scheduled in which the opponents’ winning percentage of a year ago was .539.
Obviously, what happened a year ago often has no bearing, or no similarity, to what will happen over the next four years. Even so, the Rams know Arizona is a game they need to win based on what follows. They play in Week 2 at Atlanta, one of the top Super Bowl contenders in the NFC. Next comes a trip to Dallas where the Rams have been outscored 69-14 their last two visits.
In Game 4, the defending NFC-champion San Francisco 49ers come to St. Louis in a Thursday night game. So on paper, Arizona looks like the Rams’ best chance for a win in September.
“Well, we don’t look past it,” Fisher said, referring to opening day. “We put a great deal of emphasis on it throughout camp because you have to get to a peak and you have to be ready for it. Then you just play them one at a time. Obviously, it’s important for everybody in the league to get off to a fast start, and that’s what we’re hopeful for.”
Even though they swept the Cardinals last season, Fisher and the Rams certainly aren’t looking past the opener. The Big Red have a new head coach in Bruce Arians and a new quarterback in Carson Palmer, who like Rams counterpart Sam Bradford is a former No. 1 overall draft pick and a former Heisman Trophy winner.
Arians was named NFL coach of the year in 2012 by many media outlets after stepping in for the ill Chuck Pagano and leading Indianapolis to a playoff berth.
“I have a lot of respect for Bruce Arians and what he’s done as a coach,” Laurinaitis said. “He finds ways to get the ball to his favorite guys. You look back when he was in Pittsburgh, they found ways to get the ball to Hines Ward.
“He did the same thing with Reggie Wayne (in Indianapolis). They’re doing the same thing with Larry Fitzgerald.”
The Cardinals are expected to run a lot of the same things Arians ran last season in Indy, but if there’s one rule of season openers, it’s expect the unexpected.
“He’s gonna have wrinkles for you,” Laurinaitis said. “He’ll have screens, reverses. They’ll use (cornerback) Patrick Peterson on offense.”
And Arians will try to set up the deep-passing game that he loves with the running game and play-action fakes.
But the greatest area of interest will be the Rams’ offense. How will the new-look receiver corps and the young running backs fare? Will Bradford get off to a strong start and get the protection he needs from a veteran offensive line?
With blitz-happy Ray Horton gone to Cleveland, the new Arizona defensive coordinator is Todd Bowles. Bowles was assistant head coach-secondary coach for Miami from 2008-11, including three games as interim head coach. But except for the final two-thirds of the 2012 season in Philadelphia, this marks his first stint as an NFL defensive coordinator, which adds to the uncertainty of this opening day.
“They do have a tendency to blitz, especially when they stay in their base personnel group,” Bradford said. “Some of those are only five-man pressures, but when they stayed base, I think, in the preseason it’s been over 50 percent blitz.”