When the Arizona Cardinals take the field, just over 24 hours from now, against the Pittsburgh Steelers much less will be on the line then the last time these two teams met. Thursday night's contest won't end with a trophy presentation, it won't grant the winner a trip to the playoffs, in fact in a month or so no one will even care who won or lost, but I wouldn't go as far to say that this game is meaningless. Granted for some players this is just a glorified practice and their only goal is to emerge without serious injury but for some this game is the first chance to prove that they are NFL caliber players. The Cardinals don't have as many question marks heading into the 2009 as in years past but there are still answers that be provided before the 49ers come to town on September 13th. Will all of those answers, or any of the answers for that matter, be provided or proven tomorrow night? Certainly not, but it'll be the first opportunity for us to get some insight into whether the Cardinals will resemble this January's NFC Champion team or simply the same ole Cardinals.
First and foremost with any preseason game we hope that both teams avoid injuries because there is nothing more defeating that losing a significant player in a preseason game. With that in mind here are the first five things worth watching tomorrow night.....
Defensive Alignment: Ever since Clancy Pendergast was sent packing we've heard that the defense will be much closer to a 3-4 than in previous seasons but so far both Bill Davis and Ken Whisenhunt has stopped short of committing to a 'true 3-4' defense. Maybe it's just a case of semantics but it'll be interesting to see if there are still some hybrid aspects to the defense. This will also be our first chance to see Davis' new blitz packages, although I'm sure he won't show too much given the circumstances, especially on third downs where 3-4 defenses tend to get awful creative.
Tight End Competition: So far the Cardinals haven't had a tight end step forward and claim the starting job but they've got four guys who could become the starter by week one and a fifth guy who could become the starter once his suspension is over. The veteran Anthony Becht won't play tom morrow night but Leonard Pope, Ben Patrick, Stephen Spach and Dominique Byrd will all get a chance to prove that they deserve a place on this roster. Pope needs to prove that he can keep his head in the game and that his blocking has improved. Patrick needs to prove that he's worthy of becoming the starter despite a four game suspension looming over his head. Spach needs to prove that he's healthy just seven months after tearing his ACL in the playoff victory over the Panthers. Byrd not only has to show that he's a adequate blocker but most importantly he has to prove that he's even worthy of being on a NFL roster after being out of the NFL last year.
Hightower's Happy Feet: One of the biggest complaints about Tim Hightower's game last year was that he'd tip toe in the backfield waiting for a hole to open up instead of attacking the line of scrimmage. He ran more aggressive closer to the goal line but for the most part his happy feet led to quite a few negative plays where most thought that other backs would at least gain positive yardage. One of Hightower's goals this season, along with showing up slimmer and quicker to camp, was to cut down on his happy feet and run more aggressively. With Chris Wells not playing tomorrow night, Hightower should get a couple of extra opportunities to prove that he's ready to become the workhorse back.
Offensive Line Depth: Ken Whisenhunt has already stated that his starting offensive line won't get near as many snaps as they did last preseason, thanks to the lack of a starting QB competition. The good news with that revelation is that guys like Brandon Keith, Elton Brown and Herman Johnson will get more snaps and thus we'll get a better opportunity to evaluate their play.
- Young Outside Linebackers: We've heard good and bad things from Cody Brown and Will Davis so far in training camp but this will be the first opportunity to see how they perform in game situations. Can they rush the passer? Can they turn and cover a back or tight end? One game certainly won't make or break their career but for a team that desperately needs some youth at outside linebacker, it'll be worth watching how they perform.
What will you be watching tomorrow night? How do you think these will turn out?