The Los Angeles Rams are in an important two-week heat that will largely determine how the NFC West divisional race will shake out during the first half of the season - and Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals are now in the drivers seat after defeating the Rams 37-20 on Sunday.
The Rams traded two first round draft selections to the Detroit Lions in order to make a quarterback swap. LA’s intent with the trade was to upgrade its passing attack from good to great. The team’s move was aggressive and largely paid dividends through the first three weeks of the season; however, Matthew Stafford looked like his Detroit alter ego in Week 4.
When Los Angeles needed to be at its best to take a commanding lead for the NFC West crown, the team failed to rise up for the marquee matchup at SoFi Stadium. There’s a lot of blame to go around.
Darrell Henderson, RB
Sean McVay is in his fifth year as the head coach of the Rams, and at times he has a propensity to abandon the running game even when it’s working efficiently and effectively. Darrell Henderson was one of the Rams best players on offense against the Cardinals, finishing with 14 rushes for 89 yards (6.4 YPC). The starting running back also added another five receptions on six targets for 27 yards.
Henderson had a number of chunk runs and the Cardinals defense did not seem intent or able to slow him down. Even when the Rams needed to help out their struggling signal caller and recapture momentum offensively, McVay decided to put the ball in Stafford’s hands and push the ball down the field - the results were not good for Los Angeles.
Darrell Henderson had 50 rushing yards in the first quarter. The Rams led, 10-7. McVay clearly wanted to run the ball today. Michel's fumble and defense giving up TD after TD after TD changed the gameplan.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakDTR) October 3, 2021
It was an impressive outing for the Rams RB after missing Week 3 due to a rib injury, and he looks healthy and ready to resume his workhorse duties. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time for rest with the Rams traveling to Seattle mid-week for a showdown with the Seahawks on Thursday Night Football.
Leonard Floyd, OLB
It was a tough day for Raheem Morris’s defense, as they had few answers for the elusive Murray and the rest of the Cardinals offense. The Rams were unable to contain Murray, who extended a number of passing plays and rushed for another 39 yards.
There were a few bright spots on defense, but one of them was the veteran Leonard Floyd.
With Murray scrambling around and evading LA’s pass rush, Floyd mostly seemed like he was able to match the quarterback’s athleticism. There were few times the Rams tackled Murray for a loss or short gain, but most of the times they did Floyd was in the vicinity. This is an encouraging sign with a matchup with Russell Wilson coming up on a short week.
Van Jefferson, WR
In addition to Henderson, the other bright spot of offense was second-year receiver Van Jefferson. It was a significant day for Jefferson with his father Shawn, Arizona’s receivers coach, on the opposing sideline. He showed out with 6 catches on 6 targets for 90 yards and an early touchdown.
Jefferson is not a primary receiving option for the Rams yet, but he’s certainly a viable threat if teams over allocate resources to mitigate Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, or DeSean Jackson. Against Arizona Jefferson was by far the Rams’ most efficient and productive receiver.
Jalen Ramsey, CB
DeAndre Hopkins is never an easy matchup, but Jalen Ramsey is used to foiling the star receiver. While Ramsey was unable to completly shut down Hopkins Sunday afternoon, he kept Hopkins under wraps and below his usual level of production.
The Cardinals receiver totaled 4 receptions on 7 targets for 67 yards, though Ramsey was not always in coverage.
If there’s a significant knock on LA’s defensive captain, it’s that the defense severely needed a big play or turnover to reverse Arizona’s momentum. The Rams’ defensive star players came up short in this one.
Matthew Stafford, QB
The offensive line played well and Stafford largely had time to throw. The run game was productive and efficient, and Arizona’s defense was off balance at times. There were plays to be made in the pass game, but Stafford was largely off target and left a lot of meat on the bone.
His rough outing started on the second drive where Stafford took a deep shot to speedy veteran DeSean Jackson. While Jackson wasn’t wide open, there was a throw there to be made - if Stafford had not underthrown the pass and allowed cornerback Byron Murphy, Jr to recover for the interception.
Matthew Stafford went deep to Desean Jackson but this time he isn't facing the #Bucs defense so he gets picked off.— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) October 3, 2021
Byron Murphy, who won player of the week last week, gets Stafford easily.
Murphy now has 3 INTs this season.pic.twitter.com/IhSI2L8TzG
Stafford receives ample praise for his rocket arm, and rightfully so; however, this is the third time in two weeks he’s notably underthrown Jackson on deep pass attempts.
The box score for the Rams signal caller seems better than the on-field performance. Stafford completed 26 of 41 passes for 280 yards, 2 touchdowns (1 in garbage time to Woods), and the aforementioned interception.
Stafford also threw another interception in the second half, but the play was negated due to a questionable personal foul on Isaiah Simmons. The Rams also had a questionable roughing the passer penalty by Floyd, so it’s fair to say these calls washed out.
It seemed that often times Stafford was too quick to lock on to Kupp, and even when he pulled the trigger many of the throws to Kupp were off target. The Rams got Woods involved late in the game after the outcome was decided, but it’s fair to wonder why Stafford did not look his way earlier in the matchup.
The Rams had high hopes when they executed the trade for Stafford. Expectations are simply too high for LA’s signal caller to perform like he did Sunday afternoon, and if this level of play continues, Los Angeles will find themselves on the wrong side of the NFC West divisional race.
David Long, Jr., CB
It was a rough first half for the third-year corner, David Long, Jr., though he was mostly better in the second half of the game.
The most notable pass play with Long in defense was a 41 yard touchdown from Murray to AJ Green, where Green looked to be a full 2 feet taller than Long.
Ramsey and Darious Williams have performed reliably for the Rams over the course of the last two season, but after losing Troy Hill in the 2021 free agency period LA needs a third defensive back to step up. This is an important season for Long. While his performance in the first three weeks was adequate, the Rams cannot tolerate another outing like Long had in the first half against the Cardinals.
Sony Michel, RB
Sony Michel was dependable in Henderson’s absence last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; however, in limited action on Sunday afternoon Michel committed a costly error - a lost fumble deep in Rams territory.
Michel is typically known for ball security skills, but his turnover against Arizona came at a crucial period. With the Rams losing 14-10 in the second quarter, Michel fumbled at the LA 25 yard line. The Cardinals punched in a touchdown from the 1 yard line to go up 21-10 and the Rams never really drew closer.
This moment in the game was as important as any, as the Cardinals had all momentum from that point forward and were in total control.
It’s difficult to even identify a starting point when analyzing the poor defensive performance against Arizona. The Rams had few answers for Murray’s escapability, and things were far too easy for the Cardinals for far too long.
The Rams missed Justin Hollins, who was injured against the Buccaneers and is out for a while, at outside linebacker. Second-year linebacker Terrell Lewis and veteran Obo Okoronkwo failed to make much of an impact Sunday afternoon, and they had an important role in keeping Murray under wraps.
Cardinals running backs chewed up LA on the ground and amassed 216 total rushing yards. This included a 54 yard run late in the fourth quarter by Chase Edmonds that broke the Rams’ spirit.
The pass coverage wasn’t much better, and it seemed that third-year safety Taylor Rapp had a rough day against the Cardinals’ talented receiver group. Murray completed 75% of his passes on his way to accumulating 268 yards and 2 touchdowns. The theme of the day is that Arizona’s signal caller just wasn’t significantly challenged at any point in the game.
This is a concerning development with an important divisional matchup against Russell Wilson on the horizon.
Sean McVay / Offensive Playcalling
With Stafford looking shaky and unable to put together any real momentum on offense, McVay veered away from what was working - Henderson and the ground game.
The Cardinals have a defense that is adept at making splash plays. Instead of counteracting that by playing a gritty, low-risk approach on the ground, the Rams put the game in Stafford’s hands - the result was not favorable.
There is also an argument to be made in regards to the game management aspect of the head coach’s decision making. The Rams settled for a field goal on the opening drive in a 4th and 5 situation, even though there was a very significant chance that this would be a high scoring matchup. A field goal does not help much in this scenario.
McVay also opted to kick a field goal down double digits with 6 minutes left in the third quarter with a 4th and 4 scenario at the Arizona 27 yard line. Kicker Matt Gay missed the attempt and the Cardinals drove down the field for a touchdown. Ballgame.
Fortunately for the Rams, they do not have to live with the bad taste in their mouth for long. A chance for redemption comes Thursday night against the 2-2 Seahawks. Will LA find a way to contain Wilson and Shane Waldron’s offense, or will the Rams be in danger of dropping two games in a row?