It has been a wild ride to 4-0 so far for the Arizona Cardinals. Last week's win against Miami required overtime, two weeks ago Stephen Gostkowski handed Arizona the game by missing a 42-yard field goal, and in Week 1 it took a goal-line stand to shut down Coach Carroll's Seattle Seahawks.
In spite of all the winning, Mike Miller's offense has sputtered. Through the first four games they have failed to reach the 300-yard mark and have only topped 100 yards rushing once.
Ray Horton's defense has been the unit responsible for leading this team week in and week out. If you go by the numbers, they only have the 17th-best defense, yet they have one of the best third down defenses and they are only allowing 15.2 points per game. They limited New England to 18 points and Philadelphia to six.
However, as a team they need to work on becoming more disciplined. They have been flagged a total of 30 times for 255 yards. Left tackle D'Anthony Batiste has accounted for five of the flags all by himself.
Regardless, Coach Whisenhunt's Cardinals are looking to go 5-0 despite their shortcomings. Let's take a look at what kind of game plan the Arizona Cardinals will need if they plan on staying atop the NFC West.
When the Cardinals are on offense
Despite the lack production on the ground, this week might just be the week where Arizona's ground game gets it going. St. Louis' defense is currently 26th against the run. They are allowing 135.2 yards a game to opposing running backs and have given up six rushing touchdowns. Only the New York Jets have allowed more rushing touchdowns this season.
Every Rams' defensive lineman has a negative grade against the run, except for William Hayes, according to Pro Football Focus. Linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn have been the three biggest culprits.
In terms of middle linebackers, only Brian Urlacher has played the run worse this season. Quinn is dead last out of 58 4-3 defensive ends and Long is 54th.
Sure, the Cardinals' run-blocking efforts are nothing to write home about. Yet when you play against a team who has struggled that much against the run, sometimes you need to take advantage of its biggest weakness.
We all know they can defend the pass with ease, so it may not leave Coach Whisenhunt much of a choice. By the numbers the Rams have the 11th-best pass defense in the NFL. They've only allowed two touchdown passes through the air and they are second in interceptions with eight. Cortland Finnegan, Bradley Fletcher and Janoris Jenkins are playing at the highest level possible right now.
On this designed run play, the Bears only need one-yard to pick up the first down. So, what do they do? They run the ball right at Long. In the screenshot you can see that the Rams know the play is a run to the left as they all start heading downhill in that direction once the ball is snapped.
The defensive line gets tremendous penetration in the backfield. Long had the opportunity to stop the play short and drop him for a loss. Yet, once he squares his shoulders in preparation of wrapping up, he can't manage to get off his block. Something he has struggled with his whole career.
At this point, right tackle Gabe Carimi is holding No. 91 off with one arm, so Long should have the advantage. But he ends up losing his balance and Carimi finishes him off and Chicago picks up the first down. A one-yard run may not seem like much, however it kept the drive alive.
This being a perfect example of why Arizona should run at him. Kendall Langford plays left defensive tackle right next to him on the defensive line and his performances have been just as poor. Both players tend to play a little higher than they should. So, it will be important that Russ Grimm's offensive line establishes dominance early on.
The Cards will have to run the ball Thursday. It doesn't have to even be effective, it just has to keep Long and Quinn thinking because the the last thing you want is them teeing off on Kevin Kolb.
When the Cardinals are on defense
Defensively, it will be all about turning up the heat on Sam Bradford. The Rams offensive line has proven to be shaky at times this season. They are down to their backup left tackle and backup center. Not to mention the fact its left guard, Quinn Ojinnaka, has been an absolute liability in pass protection. PFF has him graded as the worst pass-blocking guard in all of football.
Last week against the Seahawks they kept their pass rush at bay by getting rid of the ball quickly. Neither Bruce Irvin or Chris Clemons registered a sack or hit on Bradford. Surprising, considering they totaled six against the Green Bay Packers' offensive line.
To counteract the quick passing game, they are going to have to man up and bump their wideouts—just like they did in Week 1 against Seattle. Both sets of wide receivers are average at best. Patrick Peterson will most likely draw coverage on Brandon Gibson. Gibson is St. Louis' biggest threat on the outside. Yet, Danny Amendola has been the true target hog. He has seen 42 targets through the first four weeks.
When No. 8 has been blitzed this season, he is 18-of-34 for 185 yards and two touchdowns. So, it's safe to say blitzing isn't your best bet. Horton should bank on four rushers who can get the job done because when Bradford is under pressure with no blitz he has a 47.4 percent completion percentage and his quarterback rating is 72.9.
Darnell Dockett's presence on the defensive line would help tremendously.
Here is a common defensive look from the season opener against the Seahawks. Patrick Peterson (circled) is playing left cornerback and he is manning up against Sidney Rice. Rice is viewed as the Seahawks No. 1 receiver, so of course Patrick Peterson has drawn the assignment.
His objective will be to man up and bump Rice off of his nine-route. You can also see that Arizona is only rushing four, the three down lineman and the right outside linebacker. Protection is adequate on this play, but based on the tight coverage, Wilson has nowhere to throw the ball.
Peterson is in No. 18's hip pocket along the sideline and safety Adrian Wilson is manning the middle of the field. Zach Miller tried to get down the seam, but with coverage over the top and underneath there was no throwing window. It's apparent what good man-to-man coverage does for a defense.
The Rams have also had trouble throwing deep on opposing defenses, so it wouldn't surprise me to see plenty of single-high safety looks. Possibly even some cover 1 with Wilson deep. Right now Bradford is 3-of-11 when throwing 20 yards plus downfield outside the numbers. The three connections have been boom plays, but for the most part it has been a bust.
This will not be an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, yet it is winnable, even with the Cardinals being 3-7 in their last 10 games on turf. They will need to run the ball with consistency on offense and force the weak Rams' wide receiver corp to beat them on defense.
Also, special teams will be a factor. Patrick Peterson loves to return punts against St. Louis' coverage unit. He returned two of them for touchdowns in 2011.