Last year, an article previewing the Rams vs Cardinals would have been very different. I would have written about how Jalen Ramsey and DeAndre Hopkins were going to duel it out like dogfighting Navy jets. Maybe, how styles make fights, there are few styles that are more different than Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray. But last season these offenses DID take turns delivering a drubbing to the other in their two games.
Not this year, neither offense can seem to get on track much less beat up on another team. This game will be won, as they say, in the trenches and maybe with backup quarterbacks.
This is a must-win game for both teams. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Rams currently have a 14 percent chance to make the playoffs. If they win that goes up to 22 percent. If they lose their chances drop to just 5 percent. If the Cardinals lose, their playoff chances drop to 2 percent.
It was a surprise to see either of these quarterbacks on their respective injury lists, but both Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray were listed as DNP on Wednesday. . Murray missed practice due to a hamstring and was limited on Thursday. Stafford is in concussion protocol and was in street clothes on Thursday. Both injuries are difficult to predict, but there is a chance for both that it could go either way. So there is a real possibility that we could be watching a John Wolford/ Colt McCoy showdown on Sunday.
There are some distinct differences for each quarterback’s road to recovery. The concussion protocol is a Five Step process, although as the official document puts it, “Each player and each concussion is unique. Therefore, there is no set timeframe for return to participation..”
The decision about when Stafford clears the fifth step and then therefore can return to playing football is determined by the team’s Head Club Physician and has to be confirmed by an Independent Neurological Consultant. So while there are five definitive steps, the is no guaranteed timeframe, and the final decision if Stafford can play or not is outside his or the team’s control.
When it comes to Murray, he and the medical staff can make the determination that he is good to go, even if his hamstring isn’t fully healed. With head injuries, there isn’t a ‘good enough or ‘close enough.’ You have to be fully recovered. And after the bungled Tua Tagovailoa head injury, no staff is going to try to cut corners when it comes to concussions.
That said, a distinct advantage that Murray gives the Cardinals is his mobility. If that is hampered even by a small fraction, their offense is that much less effective.
The Rams Backups
Wolford has fewer than 100 snaps in his professional career, so any clear-cut determinations about how he will play are impossible.
The world got its first and only glimpse at Wolford back in Week 17 of 2020. It just so happened to be against the Cardinals. He played well for a greenhorn backup quarterback. He went 22 for 38 and threw for 231 yards. There were a few interesting stats that stood out though. The average depth of his targets was 10 yards, which was 3.2 yards deeper than Jared Goff’s average depth from 2020.
According to PFF, Wolford attempted four ‘big time throws’. Goff averaged less than one BTT per game that year. That 10-yard ADOT would have put Wolford above Stafford and Tom Brady in that category. He also rushed the ball for 56 yards at a 9.3-yards per run clip. Goff ran for 1.9 yards per rushing attempt in 2020.
Don’t let all this Wolford hype fool you though. It’s an incredibly small sample size and the offense only managed to score three field goals in that game. But let it serve as a reminder of why Sean McVay got so excited about Wolford when he filled in for an injured Goff.
During training camp, Wolford got an increased amount of reps with the first team because Stafford was managing his mysterious elbow ailment. From what I observed during those sessions, Wolford was a more mobile and less accurate version of Stafford. Wolford has a big arm like Stafford. He also operated well out of structure, but sometimes he would break from the pocket too early. Whereas Stafford would have navigated the pocket and kept the integrity of the play.
Wolford will likely be the starter if Stafford is unable to play. But, Perkins has become a Rams crowd favorite with his dynamic rushing ability and heroics that were put on display during the preseason. It wouldn’t surprise me if McVay will be practicing specific packages for Perkins. If nothing else he will give some juice to the Rams putrid run game.
The Cardinals Backup
Colt McCoy on the other hand has been playing in the NFL since Kyler Murray was in 8th grade. McCoy started three games last season going 2-1 in those games, including beating divisional foes Seattle and San Francisco. In those games, he threw three touchdowns and three interceptions with a 74.7 completion percentage and 247 yards per game. A solid stretch for a backup.
The decision about who will start will likely come down to the last minute, but how that plays out will have an obvious weight on the outcome of the game.
Injured Offensive Lines
The Rams have had 10 different offensive linemen play a significant amount of snaps this season. The Cardinals have played 11.
For the Rams, it seemed like they were healing up. Brian Allen rejoined the starting lineup and Coleman Shelton was well on his way back too. Shelton will likely play on Sunday. Rob Havenstein was getting back to form and Alaric Jackson was playing like a bonafide starting left tackle, not an undrafted free-agent backup.
Now Jackson is on the injury list and Allen is back on it as well. They are listed with knee injuries. Allen participated in Thursday’s practice albeit in a limited role. Behind Jackson, the Rams tackle situation is bleak. The Rams sign Ty Nsekhe in the middle of last month to address the lack of depth when Noteboom was hurt. Nsekhe came in for a few snaps when Jackson temporarily left the Tampa Bay game last week. That is presumably when Jackson was initially injured.
For the Cardinals, their injury struggles have primarily affected the interior line. They have been without their well-tenured center, Rodney Hudson since Week 4, but he is not on the Reserve/Injured list and also isn’t practicing this week. Sean Harlow moved to center but was injured in Week 6. Billy Price has played there since. Starting left guard Justin Pugh also left Week 6 with a season-ending ACL tear. Now Cody Ford is playing in that position.
The offensive line’s two primary jobs are to protect the quarterback and open up rushing lanes for the running backs. Just to give you an idea of the offensive line’s struggles; Stafford has taken the third most sacks in the NFL and Murray has taken the fourth most. The Rams are the 30th-ranked rushing offense by DVOA and Arizona is 26th. The edge there is likely due to Murray’s rushing ability. He is the teams leading rusher.
The Rams defense has been particularly good against the run across stats and advanced metrics. In the last game the teams played, Murray was held to 8 yards rushing, by far his worst rushing game of the year. For what it’s worth, Cam Akers had the best game of any Rams running back in the last Cardinals game. It was a lackluster 12 carries for 61 yards, but that is the most yards in a single game by a 2022 Rams running back this season so far.
Under-Performing Defensive Lines
Oddly enough, these teams have the same number of sacks on the year; 16. This is despite the Cardinals generating more than double the quarterback pressures. The Cardinals have 78 and the Rams have 36. It is hard to argue that the Rams are more efficient since they have one of the league’s lowest pressure rates. But the Cardinals blitz at the league’s second-highest rate, 37 percent. The Rams sit at 15th in blitz rate. Committing more personnel to rush the passer means you have fewer to defend the backfield.
Aaron Donald is a big reason the Rams do get the penetration. With a third-string center and a backup guard playing, Donald could be up for a big game. He once again showed that he can dominate last week against Tampa Bay. In that game, he had a sack, a hurry, and a batted pass. Leonard Floyd has found some footing in the pass rush of late. He has four pressures and two sacks in the last two games. Greg Gaines is on the team’s injury report, which means Bobby Brown III could make the first start of his career.
The Cardinals have a three-pronged pass-rushing attack, made up of J.J. Watt, Markus Golden, and Zach Allen. They make up over half the team’s sacks. A lot will depend on who ends up starting for the Rams along their offensive line. In the first meeting, Stafford was only pressured five times and sacked once. But that was many iterations of the offensive line ago.