The Los Angeles Rams and the Arizona Cardinals will meet in Phoenix this week for their first of two games against each other this season. One of these teams won a road game last weekend, have a winning percentage above .500 and currently leads the NFC West. That team is not the reigning NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals; that team is the Los Angeles Rams. It’s still murky and unclear as to how all of this happened so quickly, but now we are presented with a game, in week four, in which the Cardinals could already match their loss total from a year ago.
Staring 1-3 in the face, the Cardinals need this game to keep their season alive and avoid disaster. A Cardinals loss this week would spell disaster for the juggernaut team the Cardinals believe they have built. On the other sideline, Jeff Fisher and the Rams have the opportunity not only to jump to 3-1, but to grab their second win within the division. Stakes are high for both teams: an older, more seasoned Cardinals team is trying to stabilize their season, while a younger, rawer Rams squad is looking to assert themselves atop the division early on.
Rams Offense vs Cardinals Defense
At this point, it’s generally accepted that Case Keenum only has a matter of time before he implodes and forces Fisher’s hand. This Cardinals defense has the talent, depth and schematic creativity to make this game a disaster for Keenum. Defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are two of their best at their positions, while Tony Jefferson plays an excellent second fiddle to the All-Pro duo. Up front, the Cardinals defensive line is anchored by defensive end Calais Campbell. Outside linebacker Chandler Jones is a wrecking ball off of the edge as a pass rusher, and linebacker Deone Buchannon is a little missile. There is star talent at every level of the Cardinals defense.
- Defensive coordinator James Betcher is a fiend. He mixes up coverages well, disguises blitzes, coaches a physical defense and, overall, does a great job of abusing opposing quarterbacks.
- Look for the Cardinals to play more direct man-to-man than most other teams have to this point.
- Cardinals defense is allowing 4.8 yards per carry on 84 carries, putting them at 399 rushing yards allowed. Granted, they’ve faced good running teams in New England, Tampa Bay and Buffalo, but that’s still not good. They especially struggle to defend the perimeter.
- Cardinals run defense seemed especially prone against sweeps, power and traps. Pulling lineman gave them fits, due in part t how tight they play their linebackers a lot of the time.
Betcher is a creative coordinator. He cooks up various ways to confuse quarterbacks and give them different looks right before the ball is snapped. For a quarterback as simple read driven as Keenum, the Cardinals movement before the snap may short circuit his brain. Keenum is going to be forced to think fast and he has not given reason to believe he can do that.
The Buccaneers motion on this play with the idea that they are going to be confusing the defense. As soon as the receiver begins crossing the formation, confusion does set in, but it sets in for the Bucs instead of the Cardinals. The Cardinals rotate in a triangle, sending Tony Jefferson (#22) from an outside position to a deep safety position, moving down deep safety D.J. Swearinger (#36) to the line of scrimmage to blitz, and asking Tyvon Branch (#41) to follow the moving receiver.
The Cardinals then release out into a Cover 3 shell and the two cornerbacks quickly pick up the wide receivers as if it were man-to-man. Swearinger’s rotation down to the line of scrimmage forced the Bucs offensive line to adjust their pass protection approach in an instant, but everything happened so fast that they could not process it well enough, allowing Swearinger to nearly get to Winston and force Winston to scoot up in the pocket. By the time Winston moved up to throw, all of his receivers were covered and he threw an incomplete pass. Arizona won this chess match.
Last week, Arizona’s defense caught Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills offense sleeping on this play. The Cardinals nickel cornerback is lined up over the No.2 receiver as if he was going to be apart of the coverage. Right before Taylor asks for the snap, the nickel corner makes a bee line for the quarterback, completely bypassing any sort of resistance by the Bills offensive line. The nickel player does not quite get to Taylor, but he forces the quarterback to bail out of the pocket and force a tight pass on the sideline; a pass that Taylor did not complete. Simple, yes, but Arizona’s fast and physical defense allows for this type of blitz to work.
Arizona’s Run Defense Struggles
The Cardinals are not void of run defenders, but their personnel makes defending the run a ‘boom or bust’ endeavor. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell and Corey Peters are brutalizers that can derail plays on their own, but when those two can’t take over a play immediately, all hell may break loose.
Defensive end Ed Stinson and outside linebacker Chandler Jones are hyper aggressive run defenders. They clamp down toward the mid line of the formation immediately and look to blow up every play. While they have occasional success, they are left vulnerable to rushes out to the edge. Neither of them have the speed to lock down the edge, yet neither of them display the discipline to keep plays inside. The inside linebackers are then left to fly out to the edge, but that is asking a lot from linebackers who are generally packed tight inside of the defensive formation.
The Bills gave Jones trouble with outside rushes, including a triple option direct to his side. He is an edge player with a five-tech’s mentality. Do not be surprised if Rob Boras calls for a reverse or two directed at Jones.
Rams Defense vs Cardinals Offense
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has been hard to get a feel for this season. His first performance versus New England was a grab bag, then he came out firing versus Tampa Bay, and last week he had a total meltdown in the fourth quarter after an unimpressive previous three quarters. Palmer’s 2016 campaign has been anything but consistent, and there is no telling which Palmer the Rams will face on Sunday.
Last week, the Rams defense played conservative zone shells and allowed the Bucs to complete plays underneath because the Bucs did not have the offensive weaponry to create plays in space. Arizona does.
The Cardinals have Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd as big bodied possession receivers being complimented by sneaky deep threats in John Brown and Jaron Brown. Aside from Floyd, all of the Cardinals main pass catchers have legitimate potential in space. Even running back David Johnson catches plenty of passes out of the backfield and he is a menace to tackle in any scenario, let alone out in no man’s land.
- Carson Palmer likes routes breaking to the boundary. Out routes, comeback routes, whatever. Anything to the boundary is a favorite of his.
- Palmer’s arm does not look the same. He appears to have lost some velocity and control, and he looks like he is stressing himself too much to generate velocity sometimes. Makes for some misses on open throws.
- Arizona attacks vertical seems often. They do a good job of mixing up their route combos and stressing defenses when they choose to go deep.
- Arizona’s run blocking lives and dies with their guards.
David Johnson is a Problem
Running back David Johnson is a unique player. He’s a big, tall running back, but he moves with a grace and balance that is foreign to running backs built the way that he is. Johnson can display patience behind the line of scrimmage, make defenders miss in space, or run through or past them at any level of the field. On top of all his abilities as a runner, Johnson is also one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, and even ranks second in receptions on the Cardinals behind Larry Fitzgerald.
This play is ruined for 99% of running backs in the NFL. Not for Johnson, though. He shimmies his way around a penetrating Gerald McCoy, stays away from center A.Q. Shipley’s mess of a block and trots forward for a five yard gain. It’s not an explosive play, but Johnson gained a good chunk of yardage on a play that was ruined as soon as the ball hit Palmer’s hands during the snap exchange.
Of course, Johnson has plenty of plays more eye-catching than this one. What this play displays, though, is that Johnson has an element of nuance and efficiency to go along with his explosive play making. He’s an all-around menace.
Some of Arizona’s Favorite Route Combinations
Bruce Arians put a little spin on the common ‘dagger’ route combo here. ‘Dagger’ consists of a deep in route (‘dig’) from the No.1 receiver that has the No.2 run straight down the field over the top of the No.1. Normally, the third receiver runs a drag route or a quick slant to stress the defense on a vertical plane, but instead, the No.3 runs a deep curl on this play.
The deep curl stresses the play side safety. Between the No.2 and No.3 receiver, the safety is put in a bind: sit and read No.3’s route or carry No.2 up the field? Considering the Bucs appear to be in a Quarters (dour deep players) coverage without pattern-matching, the safety should hike it and run with the vertical No.2. Just as the Cardinals had planned, the safety spent too much time watching the No.3 and did not give himself enough time to catch up to the No.2.
Watch Larry Fitzegerald, the slot receiver to the right of the formation on this play, take a slow release off of the line of scrimmage. Fitzgerald allows the tight end to get vertical, then runs his shallow drag route directly underneath him. This is a simple rub route that gives Fitzgerald a free release and can leave him open underneath if the linebackers carry too far up the field.
On this play, the linebackers instead focus on Fitzgerald and follow him across the formation, leaving a vacancy in the area that Fitzgerald came from. Running back David Johnson slips out from behind the line of scrimmage, catches an easy pass in space, makes two defenders miss and then he’s off to the races.
This play forces the defense to be hyper aware. There are so many routes going in/out of that small area of the field and that makes it tough for defenders to keep track of them all. The Rams linebackers will have to be on their toes this week.
Both teams sport menacing defense. The Cardinals have specialized more in the secondary, while the Rams have done more to build their front four, but both squads are tough to conquer. Arizona’s offense has much more potential to put up points, though. The Cardinals have the advantage at nearly every offensive position, save maybe running back and tight end.
This game is going to be a boxing match. Both teams have a lot riding on the outcome of this game. The Cardinals need the win to stay alive this season. The Rams need this win to prove to the division and the rest of the NFL that they are legit. Unfortunately for Fisher and Co., the Cardinals offensive potential and ballhawking secondary, with the addition of home field advantage, is going to be too much for the Rams this week.