I had front row seats to the battle in the desert last Sunday and by the end of the match I can honestly say I was frustrated. After the second half the Cardinals seemed to find life despite being beat up for the first 30 minutes of regulation. Murray was no longer looking for the home run ball but instead he found himself dinking-and-dunking effectively up the field. It was too easy. His pass-catchers appeared to be wide open and often were not contested on their catches. It was hard to watch.
Two days later the Los Angeles Rams released their weekly “Rams Revealed” podcast and I gave it a close listen. Defensive Back Grant Haley was being featured after getting his first start of his NFL career and was asked about the game plan against the Cardinals, “it seems unique to the team you were playing,” J.B. Long noted.
(2:18) “Going into the week we know Kyler [is] a fast athletic quarterback so you want to keep him inside the pocket and I think the defensive line and the edge rushers and everybody who was up front rushing him did a great job. It’s pretty good to have those guys up front—A.D., Flow, A’Shawn, Greg Gaines because you know the ball is going to come out quick and to be able to play everything top-down was kind of a part of our process. We knew that they like to take shots and over the game you saw them change their game plan. They ran a lot of quicks, a lot of screens and eventually you can dump and dime all day but you’re going to have to take a shot. I think the times they did take a shot our DBs were ready and we did successful. We only had really two big plays that we considered.”
After hearing what Haley had to say I went back to the tape and re-watched the condensed version of the game to put his words in perspective—suddenly the genius of Morris’ game plan hit me harder than Jalen Ramsey putting the smack down on Golden Tate—the Cardinals played directly into the hands of LA.
Arizona rides and dies on Murray’s ability to play backyard football and find the game-breaking big play down the field or hurt the defense with his legs. Against LA, that did not happen. Morris used multiple rush packages with Ramsey and other DB/CBs that kept Murray honest in the pocket while the defensive front did an incredible job stopping AZ’s run game from ever being established. By the end of the first quarter the home team had only 26 net yards and had punted the ball three times. Towards the end of the second quarter Kliff Kingsbury’s offense finally put together a decent drive that resulted in a field goal and defined how the rest of the game would be played.
The fifth drive of the game totaled 9:30. The longest series of the match took 19 plays and of those only three went for 10+ yards: three short completions that went for more than they should have. Murray was asked to play in a way that he is not accustomed to. He did not scramble out of the pocket a single time that drive and could not find any success deep down the field. He was forced to convert short completion after short completion until finally it did not work any more. Is it fun to watch the opposition play offense for nearly an entire quarter? No, of course not, but that is exactly what Morris was expecting would happen—it was the bend-not-break defense we love to hate.
Where this Rams defense shines
This year’s defense is all about capitalizing on the mistakes of others. There is no such thing as perfect in the NFL—at some point someone is bound to mess up. By keeping everything out in front of them by utilizing soft coverage in short-yardage gains the opposition is forced to move down the field inch-by-inch. Some teams make less mistakes than others, however, and that is where most of you are currently in the comment section eager to argue about Week 1, which brings me to my next point...
Rams defense is No. 2 in NFL in limiting explosive pass and run plays through the first 3 weeks, per @TruMediaSports - just 13 explosives allowed. NFL average is 20.8. Their 10 pass explosives allowed are tied for No. 2. Three run explosives T3rd. No. 1 in explosive play rate.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) September 29, 2022
The NFL is all about offense nowadays. The number one defense in the league is going to allow big numbers once, twice, maybe even three times in a season. Look no further than the 2020 Rams where defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s unit ranked first in the league in total defense. In Week, LA allowed 35 points to the Buffalo Bills, 28 points to the Cardinals in Week 13, and in the divisional round of the playoffs allowed the Green Bay Packers 32 points. In 2021, the Bills had the best defense in the league and gave up 34 points to the Tennessee Titans in Week 6, 41 points to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, 33 points to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 14, and no one will forget the 42 points allowed in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Kansas City Chiefs.
L.A.’s biggest weakness
There are going to be games in the new-era of football that make defenses look silly no matter how great they may be and points do not often tell the full story; against the Bills this year LA’s defense created four total turnovers despite allowing 31 points. Three weeks has been a small sample size but I truly believe this defensive unit will be one of the best in football by the end of the season. They do have a weakness, however, and that weakness has been their offense, which is a perfect segue to the next comments that are surely appearing down below.
Sure, the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2 nearly pulled of the 28-3 miracle comeback that almost wiped their slate clean of all curses—and sure it would be able to point figures at a bad performance by the Rams defense after allowing a 8-play 72 yard drive to put the game within reach, but you also have to remember the offense did the defense no favors. Stafford was picked off twice and Cooper Kupp had one of his ill-advised fumbles that kept the game within reach. The offensive side of the ball has yet to figure things out and it is because of their mistakes the defense has been put into bad situations. Against the Cardinals it was Akers fumble at the goal-line. Against Buffalo it was the four Stafford turnovers.
The defense has been the best unit on the field by far and is trending to be one of the best defenses under the McVay-era. Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Bobby Wagner are just getting warmed up, will the rest of the league be ready to see them at full power? Let me know in the comments below!