When: 8:25 p.m. ET, Thursday. Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis. TV: NFL Network.
A lot has changed for the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals since they last met Nov. 9. Little more than a month later, both teams are employing different starting quarterbacks and seem to be trending in opposite directions.
It’s probably too little too late for the Rams to make the playoffs, and the Cardinals will probably find a way to hang in and make the postseason, but either way it should make for an interesting matchup.
Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss discuss Thursday night’s contest:
Wagoner: Obviously, things have changed a lot since the last time these two played. The Cardinals have had a couple of losses, not that there's any shame in losing a game or two after starting 9-1, but do you still see this team as a real contender?
Weinfuss: It really depends on the day. But for the most part, I do. I think this defense is good enough to carry Arizona deep into the playoffs, especially with how well the pass rush has developed during the past five games. However, that won’t be enough in my opinion. The special teams hasn’t been consistent all season and the offense doesn’t look up to speed. Arizona is hoping that kicker Chandler Catanzaro got his misses out of the way Sunday, when he clanged two kicks off the goal posts. The kick return game is ranked 32nd in the NFL despite a better showing by Ted Ginn Jr. against the Chiefs. That has led to poor starting field position, which is the last thing this offense needs right now. Drew Stanton has been good at times but then he’ll quickly show why he hasn’t been a starter in this league before. He has been playing with fire lately, coming too close to throwing interceptions for Bruce Arians' liking. As long as he doesn’t turn the ball over, Arizona will continue to contend.
This is some run the Rams are on right now, even though they’ve beaten up on the Raiders and Redskins. How much stock are they putting in 76-0 and 13 sacks in two games? Are those two stats a product of their opponents, or has the Rams’ defense finally become what so many of us in the media expected it to be?
Wagoner: Let’s be clear, there’s no doubt the Rams feasted on a couple of bad opponents. That is part of the equation, but my contention is that it’s a small part. The Rams of old didn’t used to dominate teams that many would view as inferior. Just a year ago, the Rams took Seattle to the wire on "Monday Night Football" then turned around and lost at home to Tennessee. So while you can count the quality of opponents against them, it’s a disservice to the job the defense has done because it’s not just been the past two weeks. This defensive run has gone back much further. As one small example, the Rams have kept three of their past four opponents from even taking a snap inside their 20-yard line. Two of those opponents were Washington and Oakland. The other? The Denver Broncos. The Rams have proved they can play with any team in the league, especially on defense. They are right now what we thought they would be and maybe even a little bit better.
Both teams have changed quarterbacks since the previous meeting. Arizona by injury, St. Louis by choice. Now that Drew Stanton knows he's the man for the rest of the season do you think it has helped him because he doesn't have to wonder when he'll be replaced? Or has it exposed weaknesses?
Weinfuss: In response to your first question, I think that knowing he's that man has gone both ways. Here’s why: It has helped him because he knows, going forward, the responsibility is on his shoulders and all the work he’s putting in in practice and all the time he’s spending with receivers will pay off in the long run because he knows he'll be the one making the throws. But at the same time I get the sense that he played a little looser knowing he wasn’t going to be relied upon to be out there every week. He could play a little freer knowing he was the short-term solution instead of the long-term answer. There’s definitely an added stress knowing you’re in charge of a team’s playoffs hopes -- especially one that had potential to end in a Super Bowl run. I think parts of Stanton’s game have been exposed, such as his inconsistency, because there’s more of a sample size for teams to study.
The Rams have won three of their past four with Shaun Hill at quarterback. He’s averaging more yards per attempt, has a higher touchdown-to-interception ratio and has a higher passer rating than Austin Davis. What has it been about Hill the second-time around that clicked for the Rams’ offense?
Wagoner: The formula really isn’t that complicated and nobody can attest to that more than the Cardinals. Hill has had zero turnovers in those three Rams victories. He turned it over in their lone loss to San Diego, including a back-breaker at the goal line near the end of regulation. When Hill takes care of the ball with the defense playing the way it is, the Rams are well-positioned to win. It’s a relatively small sample size, but Hill has never had three consecutive starts without a turnover in his career. If he can do it against Arizona, that would make it three in a row. The other thing that he has done well is take advantage of opportunities to throw deep when they’ve come up. Hill has a QBR of 98 when throwing 15 or more yards down the field. The combination of ball security and hitting big plays when the chances arise has been the biggest difference between Hill and Davis.
I see the Cardinals have shuffled the offensive line a little bit. With the Rams' pass rush firing on all cylinders at the moment, do you see this offensive line being in a good spot to slow them down?
Weinfuss: Parts of it, yes. I think the interior of the line could struggle. Because of an injury to right guard Paul Fanaika, former left guard Ted Larsen moved to the right side while Jonathan Cooper made his much-anticipated return to the field at left guard. Cooper is still trying to figure out his way on the offensive line after not playing last season and sporadically this year. But he’s fresh and he’s quick, so as long as he can stay in front of Michael Brockers he could be OK. But the Cardinals’ tackles have been playing very well lately, which will make Thursday’s matchup between them and Chris Long and Robert Quinn among the most exciting on the field.
These two offenses are quite similar -- almost identical in some categories -- but turnovers, both forced and made, have become the difference. How does the Rams’ offense cut down on turnovers to make sure they can keep this game close?
Wagoner: They’ve done it by making the change at quarterback. Seriously, that has been the biggest difference. They are 4-0 this year in games they have zero giveaways and they haven’t lost a game when they’ve had a positive turnover margin this season. Conversely, they’ve lost every game in which they’ve had a negative turnover differential. The games where it has been a draw on turnovers have gone either way. I know pointing to turnovers is cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason: Because it’s true. If you remember the costly turnovers in the first meeting, one was a deep throw by Davis that he didn’t get enough on. Hill has more arm strength, and when he misses on deep balls, it’s usually an overthrow. He’s also more aware and adept at handling pressure, something Davis struggled with. In winning three of their past four, the Rams are plus-8 in turnover margin. If they are to beat Arizona, they’ll need that trend to continue.