What’s a better way for the Arizona Cardinals, owners of the NFL's best record, to kick off the second half of their season than to host a division rival?
But just when the Cardinals looked at their schedule and thought it got a little easier after playing Dallas and Philadelphia, the St. Louis Rams visit University of Phoenix Stadium with the hottest defensive line in the league.
Last week they sacked San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick eight times, giving them 14 over their past three games. Although the Cardinals are flying high, the Rams have knocked off the 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks in two of their past three games.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and St. Louis reporter Nick Wagoner discuss whether another upset is in the works:
Weinfuss: After beating Seattle and San Francisco in two of their past three games, how much confidence have the Rams developed? And are the Cardinals next?
Wagoner: Well, it's hard to quantify something like confidence when it comes to the Rams. They have had a number of wins under Jeff Fisher that many thought would be the turning point but have turned out to be nothing more than aberrations. The Seattle game was followed by an egg at Kansas City, and when it looked like they were on the downturn again, they bounced back against the 49ers. Certainly, getting those two wins is a good thing for the league's youngest team, but there still aren't any signs that the Rams can do it consistently, which is what it takes to get it done in this league. I do think the Rams can compete with the Cardinals, if only because they seem to have a knack for battling in these division matchups, but until the Rams actually show the ability to string wins together, especially in tough road games, it's hard to say the Cardinals are next.
Obviously, the Cardinals have put together an impressive record, knocking off almost everyone put in front of them. I think everyone who covers and watches the league respects Bruce Arians, myself included. So this is a little abstract, but what is it about him that has allowed that team to really take off under his guidance?
Weinfuss: The answer is two-fold. There is the football part and the locker room part. First, with regards to the Cardinals' on-field play, Arians is an offensive genius. And I’m not throwing that word around lightly. His offense is complex and intricate and effective, if it has the right personnel, which the Cardinals have this season. Because there are so many layers to it, the offense is tough to learn, which means players spend a lot of time studying it. And because they love playing for Arians, they put in the work. He is a no-nonsense coach, and the players respond to that well. Lately, we have been hearing a lot about his "coach them hard, hug them later" philosophy that he developed from Bear Bryant at Alabama. It’s not just coachspeak. The players rave about his ability to rip them on the field or in the film room when they make a mistake, but pat them on the back and joke with them when they come off the field. And the fact that he doesn’t sugarcoat their standing with him has earned him a lot of respect.
The Rams have totaled 14 sacks over the past three games, what is clicking for the defense? Is the line finally performing up to expectations?
Wagoner: It certainly starts with that front four. The Rams got five sacks against San Francisco rushing just four, and coordinator Gregg Williams appears to be finding a rhythm with his blitz calls. The eight sacks against San Francisco were impressive, and the defense could be turning a corner as we head into the second half of the season. I think a big part of it is Williams is finally getting a handle on what individual players do well and now has a better understanding of how to deploy them. Adding rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald to the starting lineup and allowing him to play more snaps has also been instrumental. He is good enough to be one of the best at his position in this league sooner than later.
Playing off of the recent improvement of the Rams' pass rush, that is an area they have been able to exploit against the Cardinals in recent years. I know the Cardinals spent some money to bolster the offensive line in the offseason, but how much better is it, and is that still a question mark for this team moving forward?
Weinfuss: If there is one area of this team that has been steady and sturdy all season, it’s the offensive line. Who would have said that in April or May? Through eight games, the line has allowed 57 hurries of quarterback Carson Palmer -- less than half of last season's total. This offensive line is stronger than what the Cardinals have fielded in the past few seasons. And the players have been able to stay healthy, so the coaching staff hasn’t been forced to put a patchwork line together. Left tackle Jared Veldheer, signed from Oakland in free agency, has been playing well, and he will match up against Robert Quinn. Right tackle Bobby Massie is finally coming into his own and showing the skills that prompted him to be a fourth-round pick. Even the guards, Paul Fanaika and Ted Larsen, are playing well. Going forward, the only question mark surrounding this line is when Jonathan Cooper, the No. 7 overall pick in 2013, will get a chance to play. When that is the toughest question to answer about the offensive line, things are going right.
Rams quarterback Austin Davis passed for 102 yards against the 49ers and was sacked seven times the week before against Kansas City. How well can the Rams protect him against the Cardinals’ defense?
Wagoner: The offensive line had all five starters play all 55 offensive snaps last week against San Francisco. That is a good start for a group that has been banged up on a regular basis. Greg Robinson is still settling in at left tackle, and he's going to have his hiccups in pass protection. Right guard Davin Joseph and center Scott Wells have had their protection issues as well. Against the better pass rushes in the league, the Rams are going to struggle. But having a little continuity this week should allow them to improve on things like communication and handling twists and stunts, things they haven't done well with this season.
The Arizona defense is a lot of fun to watch from afar. Despite losing so many key pieces to suspension, injury or otherwise, coordinator Todd Bowles seems to have the Cardinals clicking on all cylinders. From watching the tape, he seems to bring something different to the table in every game plan. What is he doing to keep that group near the top of the league, and how soon do you expect him to be a head coach in this league?
Weinfuss: Let me answer your second question first: As soon as the Cardinals’ season ends. I have no doubt in my mind he will take a head-coaching job after the season. His stock is soaring with every game, but it will have to be the right situation. He will need an offense -- or some semblance of an offense -- in place before he takes the job. He has been keeping Arizona effective on defense this season by mainly doing one thing: blitzing. And doing it a lot. From there, he molds his game plan to fit his players and the offense. For example, against Dallas last weekend, he ran a 4-3 with one inside linebacker and sometimes one outside linebacker, and at times had safety Deone Bucannon running the dollar linebacker position -- and it was all geared to stop DeMarco Murray. What makes Bowles so good is that he doesn’t feel constrained to run the same defense every game. And it has been working.