Key Matchups To Watch: Cardinals vs Rams
The Rams have their first NFC West divisional game this weekend as they take on Kyler Murray and the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. This is a huge matchup and could set the tone for the rest of the season and for the division crown. Let’s dive in to some of the key matchups.
Offensive Line vs Rams Pass Rush
The offensive line is to the Los Angeles Rams passing game what Charlie Watt (RIP) was to the Rolling Stones. That is to say they make the front men look good. Really good. While everyone is watching Keith Richards shred and Mick Jagger preen and prance, Watt held everything together.
For the Stones, that is what has made them the greatest and most enduring rock ‘n roll bands of all time. For the Rams, the offensive line is making the front men look like the Greatest Show on Turf; Redux. Matthew Stafford is playing like an MVP and Cooper Kupp and crew are looking better than ever thanks in part to the stellar play in the trenches.
The Rams offensive line has the second-best Pro Football Focus pass blocking grade (75.4) in the league. They have allowed the fewest pressures in the league with just 13. Stafford has the second most pocket time with 2.5 seconds. That is only .1 second behind the league leaders. And, of course, this has translated to explosive plays, a whole bunch of yards and touchdowns, and most importantly a 3-0 start to the season.
This weekend may be the offensive line’s biggest challenge when the Cardinals come to town. Arizona’s defense averages just under 10 pressures a game, that’s more than double what the Rams have allowed (4.3 pressures per game). Along with that, the defenses the Rams have faced thus far are proving they can’t get heat on a quarterback. The Bears, Colts, and Buccaneers rank 25th, 32nd, and 22nd in quarterback pressures respectively.
Chandler Jones will be the line’s chief concern. He has 14 pressures on the season, second-most in the league. Jones’ stat line is backloaded due to a monster game in week one against the Titans. He racked up eight pressures and five sacks. While he hasn’t recorded another sack in the subsequent two games, he is still the teams leading pass rusher in terms of pressure rate. Second on the team is free agent pick up J.J. Watt. Jordan Hicks will be another pass rusher to watch. While he isn’t often rushing the quarterback he has been effective when he has been and his performance has been improving game over game.
That said this offensive line will be, by far, the best line the Cardinals have gone up against this season. The Cardinals’ opponents have all graded just below league average when it comes to Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking grade. The Vikings scored the highest among those teams with a 59.5 grade.
Not only that, but the Rams offensive line performed the best against the Buccaneers when the stakes were the highest. They earned an 80.7 pass-blocking grade despite seeing a season-high 11 blitzes. The stakes are high this week as well. The Cardinals are 3-0 and this will decide the first undisputed leader of the NFC West. Every divisional game for these teams will mean something significant when it comes to seeding and who makes and doesn’t make the playoffs.
Most of the Cardinals pressure will be coming from the edges, which is where the Rams have their steadiest of pass blockers. Jones usually rushes from the right, so Rob Havenstein will have the unpleasant job of blocking him. Andrew Whitworth will see a rotation of Hicks, Watt, and Markus Golden. Havenstein struggled last season against Arizona. He gave up six pressures in the teams two games. Jones missed those games, but Golden filled in very well. He came up with nine pressures in those two games. Whitworth missed both Cardinals games last season. Having Whitworth in the lineup will go a long way in keeping Stafford upright and will definitely be a key to a Rams victory. We don’t know what this offense will look like under pressure and it would be best if we didn’t find out this week.
Rams Pass Rush vs Kyler Murray
Speaking of pressure, the Rams have a pretty damn good pass rush themselves. They put Tom Brady under the most pressure he has seen all season, forcing him into nine bad throws and sacking him three times. On the season the Rams have sacked quarterbacks nine times, which ties them for fourth-most in the league. They have the sixth-highest pressure grade from Pro Football Focus at 78.9. Aaron Donald leads the team and the league with a 92.3 grade.
The Rams defensive line is a key matchup to watch in the Cardinals vs Rams game for two reasons. One; Arizona has one of the best offensive lines this season. Two: They have a mobile quarterback.
The closest they have come to playing a mobile quarterback was Carson Wentz. He ran five times at 7.4 yards a run and picked up two first downs against the Rams. Clearly, this wasn’t a game-changing performance from Wentz, but he was able to keep a few drives alive and put his team into scoring situations.
It should go without saying, but Murray is a more mobile quarterback than Wentz. He is also a better quarterback under pressure, not only than Wentz, but he is also better under pressure than he is from a clean pocket. When pressured Murray’s average depth of target almost doubles, going from 7.1 to 13.9 yards. On those throws, he throws for 17.5 yards per completion. From a clean pocket, he completes 12 yards per completion. While his completion percentage under pressure does drop significantly, from 80.2 to 61.9, he has thrown three of his four interceptions from a clean pocket.
What Murray is doing under pressure reveals why he is able to make more explosive plays. Murray rolls out of the pocket creating more time for his receivers to get downfield. This puts pressure on defensive backs who are trying to cover DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk. So it isn’t exactly that Murray is better under pressure, it is that he is better outside of the pocket. (Some have theorized that his height affects his field vision when standing behind giant linemen) The answer to Kyler isn’t to not pressure him. He still connects on 80 percent of his throws if left to his own devices. The answer is to apply the right kind of pressure. That is to say, a pressure that keeps him tucked behind his linemen, i.e. edge pressure.
Edge pressure isn’t the Rams’ greatest strength. Their strength is of course interior pressure. Mainly via the best football player on the planet in Donald. He, along with Greg Gains, Jonah Williams, and Sebastian Joseph Day have combined for 54.5 percent of the team’s pressure. The edge rushers have accounted for 30.3 percent. Leonard Floyd and Justin Hollins have been the primary rushers off the edge. Floyd has played well, although he was ineffective in week one. Hollins is injured and will miss a good chunk of the season.
That leaves either rookie Chris Garrett or Terrell Lewis to fill in this week. Lewis would be the obvious choice, but he has been on a pitch count all season. This is to help mitigate a nagging knee injury that has followed him around since college. Garrett was a standout player during the preseason, but so far has only played four snaps in week three. He was only recently activated from COVID- Reserve list. Garrett will see more playing time if Lewis is forced to play limited snaps.
It will be interesting to see how the Rams rotate these two and if they can effectively set the edge and contain Murray. If they cannot, Donald can be moved out further to play 6 technique or wider. He has played 33 snaps from outside positions this season.
Not only is setting the edge critical to stopping Murray from throwing downfield but also to stop him from picking up big yards on the ground. The Cardinals haven’t relied on him as much to do so this season, but he is still a threat if it’s needed. And against this Staley-style defense, it may be needed and could also be effective.
Limit The Damage After The Catch
Under Raheem Morris, this defense is doing what it is built to do: stifle big gains by playing soft in the box and forcing quarterbacks to take the shallow options. The Rams defense is ranked fourth in the league in average depth of target on defense. Mission Accomplished.
That said, the soft underbelly of this scheme allows for offenses to get away with a few things. One, running the ball, and two, picking up yards after the catch. No team the Rams have faced so far have been willing or able to stick with the running game, but the Rams have allowed 456 yards after the catch this season, the fourth-most in the league
This leaves the Rams potentially vulnerable to an offensive attack that features a rushing attack with Murray as the head of the spear along with a short passing game that relies on yards after the catch. Another key matchup to watch in Cardinals vs Rams will be who covers Rondale Moore and Chase Edmonds after the catch. Moore is third in the league in yards after the catch per reception with 12.5. Edmonds is fourth among running backs with 120 yards after the catch. Both have a very short average depth of target. Moore is currently at 2.9 yards and Edmonds is at .6 yards. What makes this matchup even more intriguing is that the Rams defensive backs will have their hands full with the trio of deep options that includes AJ Green as well as Kirk and Hopkins. This will likely leave Kenny Young with the duty of corralling these two. So far this season Young has given up 110 yards after the catch, second-most in the league.
This game plan is predicated on the Arizona defense keeping the offense in check and keeping the score close. A task that no 2021 Rams opponent has achieved. The best key matchup to watch may be the one between the two head coaches. Kliff Kingsbury has played little brother to the other coaches in the NFC West so far. It seems that the little brother has put on some muscle mass and learned some skills over the summer and is looking for a little respect. This will be his first chance to earn some when he goes up against his closest sibling, Sean McVay
McVay in particular has been the one to push him around. Over Kingsbury’s tenure, the Rams have won all four games by a combined score of 121 to 66. Kingsbury hasn’t shown that he can hang with McVay much less keep the score close.