Key Matchups: Rams vs. Cardinals
At this point in the season, every game for NFC West teams are must-win games and divisional games are even more important. This game carries even more weight for these two teams. Both are looking to rebound from losses. Another loss for the Rams would leave them vying for a wild card spot. A loss for Arizona would put their playoff hopes in question, with the 49ers and Vikings breathing down their necks. There are a few Key Matchups: Rams vs. Cardinals that will determine who comes out on top and takes another step in the direction toward the postseason.
#1 Brandon Staley vs. Kyler Murray
The has-the-league-figured-out [fill in the blank QB] conversation happens every season. It is Murray’s time in the barrel. After leading his team to a 6-3 record was being talked about as an MVP. The chatter was deserved. The victories were against a reigning NFC Champion 49ers team, an NFC West-leading Seahawks, not to mention the legend-making Hail Mary win over the Bills.
But without that miracle play, the Cardinals would be looking back at a four-game losing streak. And so, just like that. The hero has fallen back to earth.
Staley has seen a similarly meteoric rise. He went from an unknown position coach to, now, being tossed into the fray for a head coaching job. But, unlike Kyler, Staley is still in the good graces of the media at large. But, that favor is fickle and Staley didn’t do himself any favors with how he handled Nick Mullens and the 49ers offense. Unfortunately for Staley, Kyler is much better than Nick Mullens.
What Staley has going in his favor is the Cardinals have been proven to be one dimensional. This hardly seems true, they have a potent running game between Murray and Kenyan Drake, 1369 combined yards, and they have one of the best pass-catchers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins, fourth overall in receiving yards. But the lynchpin that holds this all together is Murray. But even so, Murray is himself a multi-dimensional QB. How could the Cardinals be considered one dimensional?
What we have learned over the last few weeks is containing the edges and pressure up the middle severely limits how effective Murray is. Over the past four games, he has been blitzed an average of 39-percent. In the first seven, he was blitzed 17-percent. Pressure up the middle? Do the Rams still have Aaron Donald? Ok. Good to go. Containing the edges? This will be the area that could cause the Rams to struggle against Arizona. This was one of the main reasons the 49ers were able to move the ball against the Rams. They were able to challenge the linebackers laterally.
The Rams have had a few key injuries that have exposed a lack of depth at linebacker. Micah Kiser is on the IR and Terrell Lewis is dealing with a knee injury and is listed as questionable to return. Without Kiser available, Troy Reeder played the lion’s share of snaps. Reeder didn’t play well. This forced the Rams secondary into tackling miss matches. Just go back and watch who was trying to tackle Deebo Samuel.
This will be job one this week for Staley and the Rams defense. If they can contain Murray laterally he will be forced to be a pocket passer. Generally, Arizona’s gameplan when a defense does this has been to hand the ball off. Drake is no picnic to defend, but handling his 4.3 yards per carry is way easier than Kyler’s league-leading 6.7 yards per carry. Not only that, but Drake’s yards per carry also takes a hit when Kyler struggles to run the ball. In the last two games, Kyler has run the ball for 46 yards combined and Drake has averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in those games.
Keeping Kyler in the pocket also keeps him behind a wall of much taller people. At 5-foot-8 Kyler benefits greatly from rolling out on bootlegs, whether or not the play is designed that way, for obvious reasons. One of the strategies the New England defensive line employed was trying to jump or wave their hands when Kyler dropped back to pass in the pocket. Kyler is second in the league with batted passes. But even beyond that, QB’s at his height simply struggle to see who is open or where defenders are going.
Of course, this is predicated on shoring up the edges and getting pressure. Staley has his work cut out for him on that front. He will have to get Reeder and the backfield ready to make plays in the flat and wrap up on tackles. The team missed 10 tackles last week and gave up 136 yards after the catch last week to Samuel alone.
But the key will be leaning into what they do well. The Rams should bring heavier sets, but also bring pressure from the outside as well. This will be made a lot easier if Jalen Ramsey is able to shut down Hopkins.
#2 Jalen Ramsey vs. DeAndre Hopkins
This matchup is a treat for any football fan. Watching two of the best go head to head is what it’s all about. The two are once again in the same division, reigniting their bi-annual slugfest that started when they both played in the AFC South. It has been a very evenly matched battle so far. The bookends of the first iteration are the exception. In their first meeting, Ramsey held Hopkins to 5 catches for 48 yards and no touchdowns. While in their most recent game, Hopkins went off. He caught 12 passes for 147 yards.
There is a tremendous amount of mutual respect between the two. Both have commented publicly about the other’s earned stature. Hopkins said of Ramsey in 2019, “He’s my favorite corner to play against. He’s the only corner in the NFL that actually follows me everywhere I go. You got to respect that. … No matter where I line up he’s right there in front of me. A lot of guys claim they’re No. 1 DBs, but not a lot of guys can do that.”
Earlier that year Ramsey told Aaron Reiss of the Athletic that, “[Hopkins] had a 99 overall rating on Madden. That is damn near unguardable on Madden, right? It’s pretty much like that in real life, too.”
All fun and gushing aside, Ramsey containing Hopkins is integral to the Rams path to a win. All the pressure in the world is moot if Hopkins takes the top off the defense. The fascinating rub of this particular matchup is how much the Cardinals rely on Hopkins vs. how little QBs have targeted Ramsey. There has to be a breaking point in this game.
QBs tend to avoid throwing toward Ramsey. On average he is targeted 4.6 times per game allowing a 50-percent completion percentage. Ramsey is 96th in targets. He’s 5th on his own team in targets despite playing more than 90-percent of defensive snaps. In past games against Ramsey, Hopkins was targeted 13.8 times per game and this season he has been targeted 9.4 times a game. Which way will the Cardinals tilt, will be fascinating and will play heavily on the outcome.
Overall, the Cardinals target Hopkins on 28-percent of passing attempts. So far he has been thrown to 103 times and caught 77 of those attempts for 967 yards. The Cardinals’ next two highest targeted receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk have been targeted 115 times combined for the same amount of catches and they only have 832 yards.
If Ramsey can take away that option as effectively as he has other receivers the Rams will get the pressure they need. Murray will be forced to go to his other, less productive pass catchers. It could also be beneficial to the Rams if they try to force the ball to Hopkins. Ramsey only has one interception this season, that decision would likely change that.
Ramsey missed some playing time against the 49ers due to a little bit of a hip thing that was bothering him.
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#3 Jared Goff vs. Himself
Jared Goff needed to have a good game last week. He needed to come out onto the field with a focus and a fire in his belly that would propel his team to victory. None of those things happened. Sean McVay came the closest he ever has to directly throwing anyone but himself under a bus. When asked about the team’s turnovers McVay said, “Our quarterback has got to take better care of the football.”
Two things stand out about this: McVay takes his “We not me” motto very seriously. He often answers criticism by indicting himself or the team as a whole before addressing a single person.
But it is also 100-percent accurate. Goff turned the ball over three times against the 49ers and it isn’t hard to imagine the Rams would have won the game had they not. One interception was returned for a touchdown and both were just bad decisions. The fumble also came from a bad decision not to slide. While scrambling up the middle he opted to take on 49ers safety Jimmie Ward rather than live to see another day.
Beyond the last game, Goff has been careless with the ball. He has thrown six interceptions and lost four of five fumbles. They have ended up winning those two games, but the other two have been embarrassing and frustrating.
Football is a game of momentum and turnovers are momentum killers. Coming off a turnover the offense feels dejected and the defense feels put upon. While the other team feels just the opposite. Of course, Goff’s turnovers affect possession, but it really detrimental to the team’s belief in him.
Goff isn’t going anywhere and John Wolford won’t get called out of the bullpen anytime soon, so Goff has to improve for this team to beat Arizona, much less make the playoffs. The Cardinals’ defense is overshadowed by their dynamic offense, but they are ranked similarly to San Francisco and Miami in DVOA.
McVay has put less pressure on Goff to move the ball than he did last season, but the same mistakes keep happening. Goff has to make good decisions with the ball under pressure. Know when to take a sack or not, when to slide, where to throw the ball away.
Some QB’s get better under pressure and hasn’t. His demeanor projects an even keel, but his skills diminish when the pocket collapses. An even keel is great. Every coach wants a ‘Joe Cool’ at QB. But, a ‘Joe Cool’ delivers in those moments. The fact that Goff didn’t come into the last game fired up makes him less ‘Joe Cool’ and more ‘Jared Comatose.’
A big shift in the man’s demeanor won’t be seen in the near future, but Goff can’t continue to cost the team wins. The Rams need a quarterback that can, at least sometimes, put the team on his back and come up big in clutch moments. Goff gets paid like a quarterback that can do that, this is a game he can prove he’s worth it.