Rams vs. Cardinals: 7 Keys to the Game for St. Louis
Can you hear it? In the background. It's the sound of St. Louis Rams fans screaming in agony as they watch their team's season slip away.
Three wins in the season's first five games. Hope. Optimism. Playoffs, dare we ask?
Since then, four big Ls and a frustratingly awkward tie.
Hope? Gone. Optimism? Gone.
Playoffs? Next year, we optimistically hope.
In many years, the Rams netting three wins would be worth celebrating. Having three wins by Week 12 would be cause enough to throw a parade.
Remember that only once since 2006 have the Rams ended a season with more than three wins.
If the Rams do not get a win this weekend in Arizona, there most likely will not be another one on the rest of the schedule.
This is the Rams' season. Here are the seven keys to the game for the Rams.
Turnovers: Get Some
It's getting a little ridiculous now.
The Rams haven't intercepted a pass since Week 4, and they haven't caused a turnover since Week 5.
Six weeks, five games, two continents and zero turnovers caused by the Rams defense.
The Rams need to get back to their turnover-causing ways, and it just so happens that the last time the Rams defense walked off the field with the ball, it was against the very same Arizona Cardinals they visit on Sunday.
Coincidentally, Week 5 was also the last time the Rams won a football game. It really is that simple.
After that victory on Thursday Night Football against Arizona, the Rams were plus-two in turnover differential. Since then, the Rams are minus-eight.
The Rams have recovered only one fumble on the season. That's the lowest number in the NFL.
The Rams will be facing Arizona rookie QB, Ryan Lindley, this weekend. Lindley is making his first NFL start.
It's the perfect recipe for an after-Thanksgiving turnover buffet.
Again, this is one of those "keys" that everyone lists in their game previews.
Keep the quarterback upright. Give him time in the pocket. You know all the cliches.
So, to be unique in phrasing, I'll say that the Rams must not fail in not protecting Sam Bradford. Follow me?
The Rams will be facing a hellacious Arizona pass rush on Sunday. Granted, the Cardinals only sacked Bradford one time in their previous meeting this season, but that is more of a mirage than a reality of this Arizona defense.
The Cardinals are tied with two other teams for the fifth-most sacks in the NFL (28). Considering the Cardinals have faced the seventh-fewest pass attempts in the league, I think that sack total speaks volumes.
More impressive, according to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals get a sack or hit on the opposing quarterback on 19.8 percent of their drop-backs. That's the highest rate in the NFL this season.
On their home turf, I expect the Cardinals to be much more effective in pressuring Bradford. The Rams offensive line must be ready to stand up to the pressure.
Remember Steven Jackson
It's totally normal for someone to buy a brand new Harley and then keep it in the garage, never to see the glory of the open road, right?
That's what it feels like with Steven Jackson and this Rams offense lately.
Head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must remember the horse they have at their disposal.
When you have Steven Jackson on your team, you must learn to use Steven Jackson for your team.
Too often, the Rams forget about Jackson in the offensive game plan. Jackson has received 12 or fewer carries in four of the team's past five games. It's not a coincidence that those were all losses for the Rams.
And it's not like Jackson is struggling when he's been given the ball. In those four games when Jackson was underutilized, he averaged 4.3, 4.8, 3.3 and 6.2 yards per carry, respectively.
Those are numbers that you can build a powerful running game around. Those are numbers that you can use to dominate the time of possession, limit your opponent's possessions and keep your defense fresh.
I could understand the lack of rushing attempts if Jackson was more involved in the passing game. But he's not.
Jackson has only 16 receptions on 22 targets this season, This is a guy who has caught 90 balls in a season before. This is a guy who has 385 career receptions, more than any other player on the Rams' roster.
So far this season, Jackson has been targeted in the passing game fewer times than the following NFL running backs: Shaun Draughn (KC), Chris Ogbonnaya (CLE) and Mikel Leshoure (DET).
Not exactly a "who's who" there. That must change. The Rams offense must make use of Jackson, in all aspects of the game plan.
Sack, Hit, Rinse, Repeat
The Rams' defense played a near-perfect game against the Cardinals earlier this season. They dominated Arizona in virtually every facet of the game.
The mantra of this week's matchup is to repeat that performance. Who needs an encore when the band plays their best song in the main set?
The Rams sacked Arizona QB Kevin Kolb nine times in their first meeting. Nine times. Heck, the Oakland Raiders have only 11 sacks this entire season.
I'm not suggesting the Rams must sack Ryan Lindley nine times on Sunday. Although, that would be nice.
I'm saying the Rams should attack the Arizona offensive line the same way they did in the first matchup. Load up the box to stop the run, force the rookie to throw the ball and tee off with a variety of pressures and schemes to confuse the newbie.
That shouldn't be too hard, as the Cardinals are expected to play the same offensive scheme under Lindley as they did with Kolb.
James Laurinaitis told Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via STLToday.com) that "[the Cardinals'] scheme is pretty set, they run a lot of similar pass routes with all of ‘em.”
Stop the Run
There is an interesting juxtaposition that will come to a head in this weekend's matchup.
Arizona ranks 30th overall in rushing yards this season (823). They are tied for the NFL's worst overall average rush (3.6 yards per).
Even more depressing for the Cardinals is that in their first meeting with the Rams, they ran for only 45 yards on 17 carries (2.6 average).
However, the Cardinals are getting Beanie Wells back, as he was recently activated from Arizona's injured/designated to return list.
Wells is returning from a severe turf toe injury, and he was still recovering from an unrelated knee surgery in the offseason.
Wells' return is important because the last time he faced the Rams, likewise in a Week 12 matchup last season, Wells ran for 228 yards on 27 carries (8.4 average).
Since that game, only two rushers have rushed for more yards in a single NFL game (Jamaal Charles and Doug Martin this season).
According to Thomas' report from Thursday, Wells says he's capable of a full workload on Sunday. Rams defense, be ready.
Abuse the Arizona O-Line
This goes along with some of the earlier keys, regarding pressuring Lindley and stopping the Arizona run game. But I wanted to highlight how important it is for Rams defenders to take advantage of a very weak Cardinals offensive line.
The Cardinals have allowed a whopping 44 sacks this season, which is by far the worst in the NFL. In fact, it's 10 more sacks allowed than the next closest team (Chicago).
But the raw stats do not tell the entire story of Arizona's O-line deficiencies.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Cardinals rank 30th overall in pass protection. That's based on FO's Adjusted Sack Rate statistic, which calculates sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance and opponent.
It's no better in the running game. As Football Outsiders also details, the Arizona offensive line has the second-lowest ranking in their Average Line Yards statistic.
ALY takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the result. The statistics are adjusted based on down, distance, situation and opponent.
The final tidbit from statheads at Football Outsiders is that Arizona also has the worst "stuffed rate," meaning that the Cardinals have the highest percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
This is all set up for the Rams defense to have some more huge plays in the Arizona backfield.
Improve on Third Down
The Rams have made some improvements on third down, when compared to last season.
Last year, the Rams were the worst team in the NFL on third down, converting only 28 percent of the time.
This year, the Rams are converting 34.6 percent of their third downs, which ranks 22nd overall.
Compared to the two-win disaster of last season, there should be improvements across the board. However, in my opinion, 22nd overall in third-down success rate is still too low.
Over the Rams' previous four losses, they have the following third-down efficiency numbers: 5-of-16, 3-of-10, 4-of-11, 3-of-13. Overall, that's 15-of-50, for an even 30 percent.
Even in the Rams' prior victory over the Cardinals, they were a paltry 4-of-14 (28.6 percent) on third down.
I know it seems like the Rams blew out the Cardinals when they last played, but the Rams were only up 10-3 entering the fourth quarter. The Rams were also out-gained in that game 282-242 in total yards.
Bradford completed only seven of his 21 passes. All in all, it was a pretty bad day for the Rams offense.
They will need to pick up the efficiency, if they are going to hope for a victory on the road this Sunday.