The Rams Winning Formula Flows Through Matthew Stafford. Other Matchups Vs The Cardinals
Matthew Stafford vs Byron Murphy Jr.
The success of the Rams starts and ends with Matthew Stafford. In the team’s four losses, he has thrown six interceptions and averages an 81.1 Quarterback Rating. In wins, he has thrown three interceptions and averages a 122.6 rating.
This week Stafford will go up against Byron Murphy. He is currently tied for fourth among cornerbacks for most interceptions in the league with four (He also has two dropped interceptions) and has created the seventh-lowest passer rating (63.4) when targeted. When the teams played earlier in the season Murphy picked off Stafford on a deep pass intended for DeSean Jackson in the first quarter. Stafford targeted Murphy seven times in that game. Murphy allowed three receptions and allowed a 28 passer rating. He allowed just 50 yards on the three receptions with 35 of those yards coming on one catch by Cooper Kupp. Murphy primarily covered Kupp in the slot during that game and Kupp had his worst game of the season. He was targeted 13 times, and caught five passes for 64 yards.
Stafford is coming off his most consistent game in weeks, but doing so against one of the league’s worst teams isn’t a signal that Stafford’s issues are solved. The biggest issue has been ball placement. He has 82 “Bad Throws” according to Pro Football References, which is fourth-worst in the NFL this season. It is those off-target throws, especially early in games, that have negatively affected the Rams offense more than anything else. It results in stalled-out drives and more conservative and predictable play calling from Sean McVay.
Even against the Jaguars, Stafford threw seven off-target passes. Four drives in the first half were cut short by incomplete passes. (Two ended drives and two ended with field goal attempts.) It’s one thing to have drives stall against the Jaguars, it’s another to leave points on the board against one of the league’s best teams. The Rams will need touchdowns, specifically in the first half to keep pace with the Cardinals.
The Cardinals defense has more playmakers than just Murphy. They also have Robert Alford in the secondary. He is allowing a 62.5 completion percentage when targeted. As a whole, their defense ranks seventh on coverage snaps per PFF and is bolstered by one of the league’s best pass rush duos. Markus Golden and Chandler Jones have combined for 69 pressures and 19 sacks. The defense is tied for fourth-most sacks with 32.
The Rams offensive line held up well in the first meeting, giving up only one sack. This week could be a different story. The Rams line was playing phenomenally at the time and they were also entirely healthy. They have taken a downturn recently (With the exception of Andrew Whitworth, who will be 40 years and one day old when the game is played) and they have also been banged up. Both Brian Allen and David Edwards left the Jacksonville game due to injury.
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Sony Michel vs Vulnerable Run Defense
Not only did the Rams have a consistent day throwing the ball, but they also had a good day running the ball. Sony Michel was the Rams first 100-yard rusher of the season. He did it by picking up over 5 yards a run, but also because Sean McVay handed him the ball 24 times. That is the most rushing attempts all season and only the third time that they have rushed 20 or more times in a game.
There have been a few interwoven reasons that the Rams haven’t run the ball much. Firstly, the offensive line is built to pass block. The interior of the line is quick, agile, and more importantly lightweight. Run blocking requires big guards to power their way upfield for longer periods of time. As an example, the Eagles guards, (Philadelphia currently has the most team rushing yards) outweigh the Rams guards by a combined 53 lbs. It isn’t the deciding factor in the running game, but in the war of attrition that is NFL blocking, those pounds matter especially as the game wears on.
The way the line is built has resulted in the running backs having a tough time getting yards up the middle. Darrell Henderson averages 2.49 yards after contact, third-worst among qualifying running backs per PFF, and Michel isn’t much better at 2.75. These stats are obviously greatly affected by runs up the gut since contact in those instances comes nearly immediately. This comes as the Rams face stacked boxes at a very low rate. Henderson faced them just 13.4 percent of attempts and Michel faced them 22.3 percent, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Although the Jaguars game affected his percentage heavily. They loaded the box on 50 percent of his carries.
So the Rams haven’t been pounding the rock, because they can only run around the line rather than through it. The two rushers have picked up six runs of 10 yards or greater when running inside the tackles and they have 20 when rushing to or outside the tackles. That said, last week gave Rams fans hope that there could be a decent running game emerging and that hope rides on the shoulders of Michel for this week as well
Two things about Michel’s performance. One: it came against the fifth-worst rushing defense per PFF. Two: The Rams were winning for the duration of the game. What does that mean in relation to this week’s game? Well, the Cardinals are the second-worst run defense per PFF, but they are much more capable of getting points on the Rams. It isn’t as though teams have put the Cardinals on their heels by running all over them and a big reason that’s true is that they often have opponents on their heels. Arizona is 25th in rushing attempts, but they give up the second-most yards per rush (4.7). Teams don’t rush on them because they are trying to play catch up.
The Rams will have to set Michel up for success by keeping the score close and keeping drives alive. If they can do that, the Rams can get this team to stack the box and open up the passing game.
In the first game, Aaron Donald was held to two pressures and the lowest PFF grade of the season. It was still a 74.4 grade. Not bad, but not the 90+ grade he has become accustomed to earning. And Donald wasn’t the only pass rusher that struggled in that game. The team was given the worst pass rush grade of any Rams game since 2018 and that shows in the result of the game.
Like Stafford, Donald is the bellwether of his side of the team. His dominance is what fuels the rest of the defensive line and the defense en masse. He creates mathematical issues for the offense. They have to double team him or he is going to destroy the quarterback. They now only have three linemen to stop whoever else is trying to get into the offensive backfield.
With that kind of advantage, one would think that the Rams would be dominating, and in some ways they are. They are tied for fourth-most team sacks with 32, but they are also 8th worst in pressure percentage, according to Pro Football Reference. Offenses are avoiding pressure by getting rid of the ball quickly. The average depth of target of Rams opponents is 6.7 yards, the second-lowest in the league. What compounds this is how many yards after the catch the Rams have given up. While they have improved, they have still given up the seventh most.
In the first game, Kyler Murray used this strategy to a T, to keep the ball moving against the Rams. On the season, Murray has an average depth of target of 8.2 yards. Against the Rams, it was 6.7 yards and his pass-catchers produced 145 yards after the catch. Which means Murray threw for an average of five air yards per completion. That’s a pretty easy day for a quarterback.
To ask Aaron Donald to do more for the Rams defense is like asking Abraham Lincoln to do more to keep the Union together. This defense needs to give an assist to Donald. The defense has been daring teams to dink and dunk in the passing game and it has been working.
An adjustment can be made. Dare Murray to target DeAndre Hopkins with Jalen Ramsey covering him. Allow your secondary to make plays and give the pass rush a chance to get home more often. They are able to sack the quarterback when given some time to do so.
Of course, sacks are big plays, but this will increase the risk of fumbles. Murray leads the league in fumbles. But he has gotten very lucky. Every fumble has been recovered by the Cardinals. In six of the Rams eight wins the defense has created multiple turnovers.