The Arizona Cardinals kick off another season of long-awaited desert football Saturday. Since head coach Ken Whisenhunt's arrival, the NFL addiction in the Valley has started running rampant and every August, the Red Sea begins to churn in support of the state's now-legit franchise.
This year, the Cards will be facing the Houston Texans at University of Phoenix Stadium. To help ring in the new season, the team announced that the game has sold out and will be shown on local television. For those fans who endured years of blackouts at Sun Devil Stadium, the 44-game streak of sellouts at UoP (which, coincidentally, is every game played there) is a sign of pride.
On paper, Saturday's game is a marquee match-up between arguably the two best wide receivers in the game: Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Houston's Andre Johnson. However, given that it's preseason, anxious fans likely won't see a whole lot of those two.
The trade-off between young running backs Beanie Wells and Steve Slaton is also likely to be limited, particularly since Wells may not play after bruising his ribs during Monday's practice.
But the preseason isn't about seeing the team's stars; this time of year is mainly about organizations evaluating their draftees and free agents, implementing some of their basic offensive and defensive schemes, and developing cohesion and camaraderie after an off-season of change.
The Cardinals endured heavy (and well-documented) change, losing core defenders Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle, in addition to the trade of long-time Cardinal Anquan Boldin. As the team tries to integrate a number of veteran additions (Joey Porter, Alan Faneca, Kerry Rhodes) and rookies (Dan Williams, Daryl Washington, Andre Roberts), they'll need this time before the regular season to gel.
So far in camp, the defense has looked significantly improved from last year's squad that was shredded by Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the playoffs.
Big questions remain, however, particularly at inside linebacker and cornerback. Daryl Washington has looked sharp so far at ILB, but is competing against veteran Paris Lenon for minutes. At the corner, Greg Toler hopes to step into the starting position across from Pro Bowler Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. After a one-year affair with Steelers corner Bryant McFadden didn't pan out, the Cardinals are hoping Toler will improve his game and strengthen the secondary.
First round draft pick Dan Williams will be competing with Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, but many fans have high hopes that Williams' combination of brute strength and agility will win out and, along with ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, will make the defensive line one of the best in the league.
Of course, the biggest question the Cardinals face remains at quarterback, after lock-in Hall of Famer Kurt Warner retired, leaving long-time starter-in-waiting Matt Leinart to take over the reins. Whisenhunt has said that, despite Leinart's desire for increased reps in the preseason, he likely won't be given any extra in-game time, leaving much of Saturday's focus on back-up Derek Anderson, and rookie QBs Max Hall and John Skelton.
Undrafted rookie wideout Stephen Williams has been making noise so far in training camp and will make the most of the preseason in hopes of landing a roster spot.
The Texans will also be looking to create some synergy, but they'll be doing it without their top draft pick, cornerback Kareem Jackson, who will be home attending to a death in the family.
Oft-discussed second-year player (and last year's defensive rookie of the year) Brian Cushing may see some significant playing time to make up for his four-game PED-related suspension to start the regular season.
One of the biggest battles in Houston features, oddly enough, ex-Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers, who was picked up this summer to compete with long-time Texan Kris Brown. Brown struggled a lot last year, going 21-for-32 on field goal attempts.
Saturday's game will be aired live on Channel 15, in addition to radio coverage on Sports 620 KTAR. Kick-off is set for 5 p.m. AZT.