Stopping the run the first priority
But a big part of Arizona's second-half surge is based on an improved ability to run the ball. The Cardinals are far from a dominant team on the ground, but they now have a competent enough run game to open things up for the rest of the offense.
Since making running back Andre Ellington a part of the offense, the Cardinals have become a team capable of making big plays on the ground and a versatile enough offense to keep teams off balance.
“They’re keeping their mix with it,” Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “They’re doing the zone-kick stuff and then some of the bootleg stuff and misdirection off the pass game just to keep you honest. And they’re staying with it enough that you have to honor it all the time, which that play-action stuff opens it up for Fitzgerald, Floyd and those guys to push the ball down the field, which they’ve been doing a good job.”
Perhaps more important, the improved run game also allows the offensive line to have a little bit of a breather from the constant pressure it was seeing early in the season.
The Rams have been better against the run in recent weeks, but if they want to get after Carson Palmer with the pass rush, they’ll need to slow down Ellington and Co. first.
Plenty of pressure
With the return of linebacker Daryl Washington into the mix after a suspension, Arizona’s defense has really taken off. The Cardinals rank seventh in the league in total yards allowed and fourth against the run.
Washington’s versatility has also enabled the Cardinals to turn up the heat with coordinator Todd Bowles’ variety of blitz packages and pressures.
“They’re pressuring on every down, but it’s sound pressure,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re doing a lot of unique things. They just don’t line up and do the same thing over and over again. They’re going to game plan you. They’re going to have a sophisticated pressure package on third down. So, you’ve got to be sound in your protections and they defend the run very well.”
Arizona’s ability to stop the run could shift some of the offensive onus for the Rams on to quarterback Kellen Clemens and the offensive line to make some plays in the passing game. That’s a big ask given the inconsistencies of the receivers catching the ball and Clemens to throw it accurately.
Complicating matters further for the Rams is an offensive line in flux with many moving pieces upon the possible return of guard Harvey Dahl. Keeping Clemens upright has to be a priority for the Rams in a game where revving the run game might be difficult.
The Rams have accumulated 87 penalties this season, tied for fifth most in the NFL. Those infractions hit a crescendo last week when their 11 penalties for 105 yards set season highs in both categories.
Whether all of those penalties were legitimate is beside the point. The Rams simply aren't good enough to overcome the continued mistakes and have done enough to have officiating crews on the lookout for said errors.
It also wouldn't hurt if the Rams, particularly in the secondary, would cut down on the constant yapping that only seem to put officials on high alert during their games.
Walton says he doesn't mind the feisty approach so long as it's kept in check.
“They’re getting better each week,” Walton said. “They’re growing, they’re developing, they’re competing and they’re making some plays. That’s the nature out there. When guys throw the ball a lot, they’re going to get some on you at times. We just have to keep working on finishing and me do a better job of just keep mixing coverages with them to help them out, to keep give different looks out there.”
Arizona is 5-1 at home this season and figures to be a tough out regardless. Anything the Rams do to help them out via silly penalties only makes the task more difficult.