Left tackle Bradley Sowell (79) faces off against Eagles end Brandon Graham last weekend.
Three months ago, Robert Quinn expedited Bradley Sowell's chance to become a starting left tackle in the NFL. On Sunday, Sowell's performance against the Rams' star defensive end could play a key role in determining his future.
When the Cardinals lost to St. Louis, 27-24, in the season opener on Sept. 8, Quinn was an absolute menace. He sacked quarterback Carson Palmer three times and forced two fumbles, continually beating incumbent left tackle Levi Brown. His dominance set the wheels in motion for an eventual trade, as Brown was sent to the Steelers for a conditional draft pick less than a month later.
That opened the door for Sowell, the undrafted second-year player out of Mississippi who the Cardinals picked up off waivers from the Colts just a week before the season began.
"I never thought I'd be a starter here," Sowell said. "It's crazy how it all works out."
Sowell and coach Bruce Arians both admit it's been a work in progress. Advanced football metrics don't grade Sowell positively, and he gave up a pair of sacks and a forced fumble to Eagles defensive end Trent Cole in last week's loss.
"Potentially," Arians said, when asked if Sowell could be the team's left tackle of the future. "He's still so young. The
one thing is, he fights. He gets beat, he gets up and he fights. That's all you can ask out of a guy."
Sowell said his natural talent isn't the problem, but losing the correct technique and dealing with the noise levels in road stadiums have led to some shaky moments.
"I've had good stretches, but I've got to be more consistent," Sowell said. "I think I can do it. I've went against some good guys and done well, but I've had some times when I've gotten baptized, too."
Sowell would love to settle in as the Cardinals' left tackle for years to come, but knows he must prove his worth. He hasn't done enough to earn that spot, and there may not be a tougher test than Quinn.
He leads the league in forced fumbles (6) and is second in sacks (13). The only thing more impressive than his production is his weekly expectation.
"At first I put down six sacks and five forced fumbles," Quinn told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I think the past three or four weeks, I bumped it up to seven sacks and six forced fumbles. In the back of my head, I'm like, 'OK, Rob. You only have one today. We've got six more to get.'"
It's not just Sowell who will be challenged. The Rams' front four has combined for 29 sacks, as Chris Long (6.5), Michael Brockers (5.5) and Kendall Langford (4) have done their share of pressuring the quarterback.
The Cardinals offensive line had some rough moments against the Eagles, and the heat on Palmer played a substantial role in the loss. The Cardinals know the offense won't click if the Rams are constantly getting into the backfield.
"There's no hiding, especially in this offense," right tackle Eric Winston said. "Coach Arians throws the ball. He wants to drop back and get it down the field. That puts pressure on the tackles and we've got to be up to the task."
Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said the pressure by Philadelphia snuffed out some potentially explosive plays and led to Palmer's interceptions.
"You go back and look at it, there are guys in his face," Goodwin said. "We've got to do a better job up front."
Arians said the Cardinals will help Sowell out on some plays, dispatching running backs and tight ends to chip Quinn. But on others he won't have any reinforcements.
"Probably the biggest (challenge) he's had, probably even bigger than (Colts defensive end) Robert Mathis, because this is a young Robert Mathis," Arians said.
Sowell knows he has somewhat of a thankless job. Much like a referee, his goal is to be invisible. Only when a quarterback gets sacked or pressured does his name come up.
"We had (71) plays last week," Sowell said. "You get beat twice and it's a bad game for you. He went 2-for-(71) and I went (69-for-71)."
Said Goodwin: "Every Sunday, it's miserable. I don't think there's ever a defensive end where you go, 'Ooh, I can't wait to play this guy."
Sowell has four more games this year to show he's making the strides necessary to be considered a long-term option. He's seen the glimpses of what he can be, but Quinn is hell-bent on chewing him up like he did Brown.
It's only one battle on a field full of them, but the ramifications are huge, especially since the Cardinals need a strong finish to have a shot at an NFC wild card.
"I've been watching him throughout the year, keeping my eye on him," Sowell said. "One thing about left tackle is, it's a gauntlet. I just faced the leading sacks leader (Mathis) two weeks ago, Trent Cole last week. I've got to play a lot better this week than I did last week. I got beat a few times last week. I can only prepare as hard as I can and see what happens."