Key Matchups And Playoff Storylines: Rams Vs Cardinals Part III
Desperate times call for desperate measures. How desperate? Jordan Fuller is having ankle surgery and Taylor Rapp is in concussion protocol. The two have been on the field for a combined 2,143 of 2,326 possible snaps… The remaining safeties have played a combined 532 snaps. So adding a player that has 12,748 snaps over 13 seasons under his belt makes a lot of sense. That’s the upside. The downside is Eric Weddle is 37 and hasn’t played a snap of professional football in well over two years. The downside doesn’t stop there. The Rams have had two defensive coordinators since he was last on the team, one of which completely renovated the defensive scheme.
How much playing time will Weddle actually see against the Cardinals remains to be seen. But no matter which way you slice it this position group could be a massive liability against Kyler Murray. Murray is a constant threat to throw deep passes. He leads the league in PFF grade when throwing the ball 20 yards or more. He has the second-most passing yards when throwing these passes. He is behind only Matthew Stafford by 147 yards, but Murray played two fewer games than Stafford. Not only that, but he has thrown only three interceptions on deep balls compared to Staffords seven. Nearly one-third of Murray’s production has come on these passes. He is also first in the league in big-time throw rate per PFF and he leads in that category by a mile. He is 1.7 percent better than Joe Burrow. The difference between first and second place is the same as second place and twelfth place.
This group of safeties will be responsible for limiting these big plays. Of course, this defense is schemed to ideally prevent these plays by playing two safeties deep in the backend. In their win in week 14, the Rams were able to prevent Murray’s explosive passes. He went four of 11, resulting in a 36.4 completion percentage. Well below his season-long average of 49.3 percent when throwing for more than 20 yards. That mark also leads the league. But this result was accomplished with Rapp and Fuller. Now Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess will likely be the defensive backstop with Weddle working in situationally.
What Weddle will bring to the group is experience playing in the box. This could become vitally important if the Cardinals get their running game humming as they did in their week 4 win against the Rams. Neither Scott nor Burgess have spent much time in run defense.
Weddle made his name in part by being able to play in coverage and muck up the run game with physical play. Of course, the big question is how will a 37-year-old who has been on the shelf since early 2020 keep up with, say, Kyler Murray? Will he have the lateral speed that is required to tackle Murray? Experience in tackling goes a long way, but if you can’t get in front of the guy, you can’t tackle him. And that’s just one question. Can Weddle still keep up in coverage against deep threat receivers? Despite missing DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and A.J. Green have caught a combined 24 deep passes for 789 yards and four touchdowns.
There are more questions than answers about the Rams safeties heading into Monday night.
The running game is a double-edged sword for the Rams. On one side, the Rams have struggled to get theirs to work for them on a consistent basis. On the other, teams that have the ability to stick with the run have made the Rams pay on defense.
In week 4, the Cardinals were one of those teams. In that game, they ran for 216 yards. 120 of those yards were on 12 carries by Chase Edmonds. Edmonds hasn’t been the Cardinal’s main back. Arizona has handed off to James Conner far more. One big reason is that Edmonds has missed five games due to injury, including the team’s second meeting in week 14. Heading into this game they are both listed on the injury report.
Sony Michel took the reins of the Rams running game starting in week 13. The switch away from Darrell Henderson coincided with the end of the Rams three-game losing streak and the start of a five-game win streak. In those losing efforts, Sean McVay showed no confidence in his running game, rushing on average just 17 times a game. Since then, the Rams are averaging over 26 attempts per game.
How each team uses their running game will speak volumes as the game wears on. The Cardinals should look to take pressure off Kyler Murray by leaning on Edmonds and Conner (if healthy) similarly to how the 49ers leaned on their rushers. San Francisco used pitch plays to get the Rams defense off balance and they also ran on early downs to set up easy first downs. It is similar to how Arizona won in the first game.
For the Rams, the running game just needs to be effective. It doesn’t need to win the game, but it needs to be used to set up the throwing game. With Cam Akers back in the lineup, they will have a better chance at doing this with a back that is a change of pace from Michel.
Both defenses are good against the run, but over the last few weeks of the season, the Rams have really been stout against the run. But both are coming off bad weeks from a run-stopping perspective. The Rams were ranked 24th and the Cardinals ranked 30th against the run by EPA according to rbsdm.com in their week 18 losses. The defense that bounces back will have the upper hand in the Wild Card matchup.
Matthew Stafford vs Jalen Thompson
Matthew Stafford leads the league with 17 interceptions. That just so happens to work out to one interception per game, but Stafford has had six games without an interception. In all of those games, the Rams have won. In most of those games, the Rams have gone on to win the game by a comfortable margin. One of these games was the last Rams/Cardinals game, in which the Rams had a comfortable lead for a good portion of the game.
None of this is rocket science. No turnovers lead to a greater chance of winning a game. But, Stafford likes to air it out. It is a high-risk/ high-reward proposition. This is what the Rams signed up for when they opted for a quarterback that has an arm that can make big throws and throws that thread the needle. But there is one big caveat. It is the big ‘But’ that hangs like the Sword of Damocles over Stafford’s whole career. The gunslinger mentality of it all will fail in the playoffs.
The calculus around that risk/reward proposition does shift in the playoffs. Dropping a game in October is one thing, the Super Bowl tournament is one and done. There is far less forgiveness when it comes to the playoffs. An interception at the wrong time could send a team home. Staffords sample size in the playoffs is small. He led Detroit to the playoffs three times. He threw two picks in 2012, one in 2015, zero in 2017, and lost all three games.
One of the Cardinal’s safeties that has emerged as a threat to snag an errant pass is Jalen Thompson. According to Sports Info Solutions, Thompson has accrued 41 points saved, the third-most among safeties. He is solid in coverage allowing an 89.3 Passer Rating when targeted and has picked off three passes. He is also a solid tackler in the passing game and against the run. He is second among all safeties in PFF’s Stop metric which tracks tackles that constitute a “failure” for the offense. He is one Stop behind the top spot. Thompson is truly having a breakout season after joining the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent out of Washington State.
Stafford has struggled when playing against some of the league’s best safeties. He has thrown picks to Jimmie Ward and Kevin Byard, and all in all, he has thrown eight of his 17 interceptions to safeties.
Some of these picks have come off of later down-long distance ‘mini-marys’ which are an attempt to salvage a drive. These have been deemed ‘arm punts.’ This makes sense if your punter had some issue that was preventing him from doing his job. But in fact, the Rams have one of the better punters in the league. The decision to opt for that kind of response is baffling, especially when you have the best receiver in the game. Cooper Kupp has a lot of catches and a lot of yards, but also led the league in yards after the catch and first downs. Arm punting on the other hand has proven to be detrimental to the Rams chances of winning and Thompson will likely be hauling in his fourth pick if Stafford heaves one up at some point in the game.