Rams Vs Cardinals: Week 3 Key Matchups- Identity Crisis

The Rams and Cardinals come into Week 3 seeking the same thing; Identity. Nothing like a divisional game to find out what your team is made of.

The Rams Defense In Week 2 Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell
The Rams Defense In Week 2 Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell

In week one both the Rams and the Cardinals had their ears boxed off by AFC haymakers. In week 2 both teams redeemed themselves. The Rams offense boat raced the Falcons in the first three quarters which was enough to notch a win on the 2022 belt. Arizona mounted a second-half comeback to sneak by Las Vegas. Both teams head into their first divisional match 1-1 and both still have a lot to learn about themselves.

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The Cardinals have had a hard time defining their identity. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury seems to want it to be one thing, but his one thing hasn’t proved to work for an entire season. They also have a sneaky good defense, but defensive coordinator Vance Joseph refuses to modernize.

The Rams offense hasn’t clicked for four quarters of a game yet. Outside of Stafford to Kupp, the McVay offense has looked far more average than championship level. So far, defensively, teams have been able to push them around and the pass rush isn’t potent. All of this is compounded by injuries along the Rams offensive line and in the defensive backfield.

Despite those injuries, the Rams are heading into Arizona a 3.5-point favorite.

Rams vs Cardinals Week 3 Key Matchups

Matthew Stafford vs. Kyler Murray

Both of these quarterbacks can put the team on their back and win you a game. But both can also cost you a win as well. Last week, Kyler Murray singlehandedly orchestrated the Cardinal’s comeback against the Raiders. He threw for 277 yards and a touchdown. He only ran for 29 yards, but his rushes were crucial. He ran in a touchdown and a two-point conversion as well as for several first downs, including a critical first down on a 4th and short attempt.

Similarly, Matthew Stafford made the Rams offense hum against the Falcons in Week 2, throwing for 272 yards and three touchdowns. But Stafford also threw two interceptions, the latter of the two allowed the Falcons to mount a comeback of their own. The comeback was thwarted, but Stafford’s foibles have cost the Rams wins in the past. Stafford currently leads the league with 5 interceptions.

For Murray, there is a direct relationship between losing and pressure. In 2021, when Murray was pressured 12 times or more during a game the Cardinals were 2-4. The margin of victory in those two wins was an average of two points. Just as a reference point the Rams were 4-3 when Stafford was pressured 12 or more times last season.

With Stafford, it’s less of a direct line. He doesn’t get better when pressured, but it isn’t what causes his costly turnovers. Only one of the interceptions that he has thrown this year have been while he is under pressure.

But the two games he has played so far this year have been polar opposites when it comes to pressure. Stafford was under pressure in Week 1 on 38 percent of his dropbacks for a total of 19 pressures and seven sacks. Last week, it was 16.2 percent for a total of six pressures and one sack. It’s easy to see that pressure on Stafford can still cause the Rams offense to fall apart, but it isn’t what causes Stafford to turn the ball over and it seems nearly impossible to diagnose what does.

Stafford shoots himself in the foot on a lot of these interceptions leaving the Rams hoping they and Stafford have done enough to counter the negative effects of the turnover(s). Last season they often did do enough. What helps are all the pieces around Stafford that mitigate the damage done. A great defense, smart coaches, and great receivers all keep the Rams games. Stafford rarely had those things when he played in Detroit and we all saw the results.

For Murray pressure is so much more effective on him because, unlike Stafford, he doesn’t have a support system around him. The entirety of the offense is, “Kyler, go do something.” No genius play-caller or Hall of Fame caliber receivers. (Until Deandre Hopkins gets back. And Murray is much better with Hopkins.) Not even a stud running back to share the offensive load. If a team can turn it on in the trenches and get heat on Murray, the offense will stall. Nothing to ease the pressure on Murray.

The Rams defense according to Pro Football Reference has accumulated only nine pressures so far. That’s good for 30th in the league. This week they will be going up against the best offensive line that they have seen thus far. PFF grades the Cardinals as the 8th-best pass-blocking team in the league. The Bills and Falcons are tied for 20th. While they have given up their fair share of pressure, Kyler has still been able to “go do something” enough. He’s only been sacked three times, one of the lowest sack totals for a starting quarterback. So it’s not just pressure, but meaningful pressure that derails the Cardinals.

The Rams will need to get sacks and set the edge to contain Murray. The Rams have been able to turn their meager pressures into sacks with five sacks on nine pressures, but they have had issues securing the edge. Bills quarterback, Josh Allen rushed for 56 yards and four first downs against the Rams.

For Stafford, it will just be about putting together a clean game without turnovers. The Cardinals are one of a few teams that have not intercepted a pass yet this season but they proved last week to be a scrappy team that will pounce when given a chance. If Stafford’s bad streak of multiple turnover games continues, the Cardinals could upset the road-favored Rams.

Greg Dortch vs Which Ever Ram Ends Playing Nickel

The injury bug has hit the Rams secondary hard this week. Troy Hill is on injured reserve. Decobie Durant is questionable with a hamstring and David Long has been limited in practice with a groin injury. Jordan Fuller also missed practice on Thursday due to a hamstring injury. Those three corners players make up over 61 percent of the total snaps played by Rams corners this season.

In response, the Rams signed Shaun Jolly off the Browns practice squad. Jolly was an undrafted free agent out of Appalachia State this year. In 2019 he posted the best numbers of his career with five interceptions, two for touchdowns, and eight passes defended.

With that amount of snaps to replace, figuring out who goes where in secondary is a crap shoot. Assuming all injured corners will miss some of if not all of Sunday’s game, the Rams are left with Derion Kendrick, Robert Rochell, Terrell Burgess, and Jolly. Of those, only Rochell and Burgess have any playing time. Combined, they have played 407 snaps over five seasons.

My best guess says Rochell and Kendrick take Long’s playing time on the outside and Burgess covers the slot. These are both guys that the Rams have not shown a lot of faith in when it comes to cornerbacking. Burgess has played only a minor role in his three seasons. So far this season he has only played on special teams. Rochell was leapfrogged by Durant when Hill was injured last week and he has only played three snaps on defense this season.

Greg Dortch has emerged as one of Kyler Murray’s favorite targets in the first two games. All of last season he caught three passes. So far this season he has caught 11 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. He has stepped right into that slot receiver role now that was occupied by Christian Kirk. With the emergence of Dortch and Marquise Brown, the Cardinals have a tough wide receiver room to contain. Tutu Atwell may want to take notes, as they are both 5’8”-ish.

Brown has 10 catches for 111 yards and a touchdown of his own. Add in 10 catches for 89 yards from Zach Ertz, and this passing game is verging on something solid. The veteran A.J. Green hasn’t been much of a factor as of yet but proved he still has some plays left in him, with an impressive two-point conversion catch at the back of the end-zone that tied the game with the Raiders. A healthy secondary would struggle when faced with four credible pass catchers, but of course, the Rams aren’t healthy.

Jalen Ramsey will play a good amount of snaps at the nickel, but he has primarily been used on the outside this season. So covering Dortch will come down to Burgess for a good amount of downs. A good game out of him will go a long way in his career prospects, but his lack of experience may handcuff the Rams.

Cardinal Pass Rush vs Rams Patchwork Offensive Line

The Rams offensive line has also been stricken with injuries. They held up well last week. But the Cardinals defensive line is a different animal than the Falcons. For one the Cardinals blitz a lot, a league-high of 41 blitzes, which is exactly half of the dropbacks they have faced. Buffalo famously didn’t blitz the Rams and the Falcons blitz at about half the rate of Arizona, 24.7 percent. So the Rams patchwork line will have to hold up to an onslaught of defenders.

The conundrum Arizona faces is that they have only sacked the quarterback once despite having 30 pressures, the second most pressures in the league. One would assume that eventually, they would start raking up the sacks, but that remains to be seen.

And not only more pressure, but they get pressure from all over the place. Their leading lineman is Zach Allen who is a defensive end, then the next are edge rushers Markus Golden and Dennis Gardeck. J.J. Watt came up with four pressures in one game after missing week one. Even safety Budda Baker has a pair of quarterback pressures.

Of course, there are a few ways to make a team pay for blitzing. One way is to run the ball effectively on passing downs. I wouldn’t hold my breath on the Rams doing that. But the other is by gashing them with a quick passing game. That is something the Rams can absolutely do, the line just needs to hold up long enough for Stafford to get through his progressions. They were able to do that in Week 2, but not in Week 1.

So far this year Stafford has been very good when blitzed. On the nine dropbacks in which he was blitzed, Stafford has a completion percentage of 88.9 percent, 9.6 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, and zero turnover worth plays. It’s a very small sample size and really only reflects one game, because the Bills didn’t blitz. Looking back to last season, Stafford was still good at navigating five or more pass rushers; 75.9 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns, one interception, and only three turnover-worthy plays. Of course, that’s a better sample size, 21 games, but with a very different offensive line.

The Rams Defense In Week 2 Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell
The Rams Defense In Week 2 Photo Credit: Brevin Townsell