Cardinals vs Rams: Breaking Down Arizona's Game Plan

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Cardinals vs Rams: Breaking Down Arizona's Game Plan
Michael Thomas/Getty Images
Tyrann Mathieu (right) punches the ball away from St. Louis tight end Jared Cook in Week 1.

The Arizona Cardinals need to be ready for a very stiff test from the St. Louis Rams and their defensive line in particular when these two teams go head-to-head at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The last time these two teams met it was a Week 1 contest that saw the Rams post a 27-24 victory to start the season. Quarterback Carson Palmer was under a lot of pressure and got sacked four times for 23 yards of losses. Three of them came from Robert Quinn as he devastated former left tackle Levi Brown.

That takes us to our first point.

 

Offensive Game Plan

Hold That Line

Brown was traded to Pittsburgh, and Bradley Sowell is his replacement. Sowell has started every game since Brown departed and has been weak in pass protection. The matchup on that end of the line, Quinn against Sowell, is going to be a key one to watch.

Let’s take a look back at the season opener and see how Quinn pulled it off. There are quite a few similarities between them. 

NFL.com game film diagrammed in power point

On the first sack, Quinn was able to run wide around Brown and take Palmer down near midfield. Simply put, Quinn’s speed was too much for the slower Brown to handle, and it ended in a near-disaster with a fumble that Brown recovered.

It’s also pointed out that running back Rashard Mendenhall went out on a passing route and left Brown to fend for himself.

NFL.com game film with diagramming in power point

The second sack was a lot like the first, but it could have been prevented. Quinn (yellow circle) matches up against Brown (red box). Arizona keeps running back Alfonso Smith (red box in backfield) back to block on this 3rd-and-12 play. Smith is in the right spot to potentially pick up Quinn but makes a huge mistake.

Smith cuts inside toward the center, and it leaves Brown one-on-one with Quinn. Including the center and guard, there are four Arizona players in the white box to block two guys, and they couldn’t get it done. Quinn went outside and curved back toward Palmer and found him for his second sack in less than three minutes.

NFL.com game film diagrammed in power point

The third sack comes with 11 minutes left in the game and leads to a Greg Zuerlein field goal that ties the score at 24-24. Yet again, Quinn winds up one-on-one with Brown, and there is no one to help in the backfield.

Palmer is looking downfield for a receiver, and his field of vision is indicated by the black triangle. Left guard Daryn Colledge (71) kicks to his left to pick up the defender who starts the play directly in front of Brown.

Brown is too slow, and Quinn gets his third sack. The ball pops loose, and the Rams recover with good field position. Quinn likes to go outside and curve back around to the quarterback, which is something the Cardinals would be very wise to be aware of. 

None of these sacks came on blitzes. These were just standard four-man pass-rush plays. If Arizona can’t handle just four guys, what’s going to happen when the Rams start blitzing and bring five, six or seven guys?

 

Stay Balanced

The Week 1 battle between these two teams was one of Arizona’s best games in terms of distribution in the passing game. Andre Roberts had eight catches for 97 yards, Michael Floyd had four receptions for 82 yards, while Larry Fitzgerald made eight catches for 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

While it might not look like that on the final scoresheet, the takeaway here is to move the ball through all of the receivers, tight ends and running backs to keep the Rams guessing. Palmer has been doing well with this as of late, and that trend should continue.

 

Pound and Ground

The Rams are 15th against the run, allowing 109 yards per game. There should be opportunities for Rashard Mendenhall to find room and post some bigger gains like he did against the Indianapolis Colts. Against the Colts, he broke a 15-yard run and finished the day with 54 rushing yards and a touchdown. Hopefully, Mendenhall can get the key gains when needed or put the Cardinals in better position heading into third-down situations.

Andre Ellington would add another wrinkle to the offense. According to Darren Urban from the team's website, Ellington told reporters that he predicts he will play this weekend. It would be a big boost if he did. Ellington needs to get involved in the passing game on things like screen passes and wheel routes to spread out the St. Louis defense and take heat off of Palmer.

 

Defensive Game Plan

Stuff Stacy

Zac Stacy has risen up to take the lead running back position in St. Louis. With a second-string quarterback in Kellen Clemens under center, the Rams might be looking to use the run heavily in this game. The Arizona defensive line needs to stay focused and shut Stacy down.

They limited Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy to 79 rushing yards, and they should be able to hold Stacy to fewer yards.

 

Keep the Cook Out of the End Zone

Tight end Jared Cook had his best game of the season against Arizona with seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Arizona has been weak against tight ends this season as the Cardinals have allowed 14 touchdowns to tight ends, including three last week against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It’s not the same offense they faced in Week 1, but the concepts are the same. Arizona needs to find a way to lock down Cook and keep him from having another monster game. This might involve a linebacker spy or possible double coverage on him.

 

Bring the Heat Up the Middle

The Rams have a new center this week in Tim Barnes. Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com reported that center Scott Wells suffered a broken fibula in last week’s game against San Francisco that will shelve him for the rest of the season.

At this late stage in the season, a new offensive lineman is like holding up a neon sign that screams “Blitz Here!” This would be a great week for the Cardinals to try blitzing in the A-gaps (between the center and guard on either side) and make life difficult for Barnes. He’s a second-year player out of the University of Missouri and has little experience in the NFL.

Perhaps a couple of calls for safety blitzes might let Tyrann Mathieu loose in the backfield to wreak havoc.

Who wins this game?

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The Cardinals need the win to keep their playoff hopes alive. A loss would be a devastating, but not fatal, blow to their postseason dreams. Arizona hasn’t won in the NFC West in its last eight tries, and breaking that streak this week would be a huge plus.

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