A week after surrendering 33 points and over 200 rushing yards to a Buffalo Bills' team that entered the game at 0-2, the Arizona Cardinals defense has an opportunity to bounce back against a Los Angeles Rams offense that ranks last in the NFL.
The Rams come into Sunday's contest averaging just 262.7 total yards and are one of just five NFL teams averaging fewer than 300 yards per game.
Leading into the Cardinals' matchup against the Bills, defensive coordinator James Bettcher emphasized the importance of stopping the run, even though Buffalo had averaged just 75 yards per game on the ground through its first two contests.
Despite Bettcher's attention to the ground game, Buffalo torched Arizona's rushing defense to the tune of 208 rushing yards Sunday. Even though Arizona defended the run better in the second half, it was not enough to satisfy Bettcher, who said players and coaches were forced to look in the mirror on Monday morning and evaluate what went wrong.
"Obviously we were very disappointed with how we played in the run game last Sunday," Bettcher said. "But I'll tell you what, the thing I really love about this defense is that these guys will come back in and they are not afraid to look in the mirror as individuals and we're not afraid to look in the mirror as coaches on defense, and come in on Monday and get it corrected. Some of the biggest things in that were just eyes and being in the right fits. The second time and the second time don't mean nothing, we all know that, but they came back and repeated some of the runs and we fit them correctly later in the game. And again, the second time don't mean nothing, but the ability there to be in the right place shows that we're capable."
The Bills' performance against the Cardinals catapulted Buffalo into the top 10 in rushing offenses in the NFL, and now Arizona faces a Los Angeles team averaging 40 yards per game fewer than the Bills.
Through three games, the Rams have averaged just 88.7 rushing yards per game, despite possessing talented second-year back Todd Gurley. Gurley is a physically dominant downhill runner with exceptional leg drive and a knack for dragging defenders, and his style represents a shift from the more elusive LaSean McCoy who anchored the Bills' running game last week.
"Gurley is running the ball really well, he's as powerful and this past week, each and every week, you just see him in their run game and he's getting better and better and offensively, they're getting better and better each week so obviously we know running the ball, first and second down, that's what we got to do is stop the run," Bettcher said.
The Rams were hoping to pair Gurley, the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, in a high-powered offense with No. 1 overall selection, quarterback Jared Goff, but Goff has yet to see the field during the regular season. Goff has served as the team's backup the past two games behind Case Keenum, a former Air Raid quarterback at Houston who has helped Los Angeles to a 2-1 start and a tie for first place in the NFC West with Seattle.
Despite completing just 53.1 percent of his passes this season and throwing three interceptions, Bettcher is wary of Keenum's ability to take the top off a defense and target receivers down the field.
"Protect the shots over the top, they'll do a nice job on play-action to try and get the ball over the top," Bettcher said.
The No. 1 priority for the Cardinals against the pass this week is shutting down all-purpose threat Tavon Austin, a West Virginia product who possesses some of the top breakaway speed in the NFL.
While the Rams haven't been overly successful in getting Austin the ball in the open field (He has 14 catches for 145 yards), Los Angeles is determined to find ways to incorporate the 5-foot-8, 176-pound speed threat into the passing game in a variety of situations.
"The different ways they try to get (Tavon) Austin the ball, whether it's on jet action, whether it's reverses, line him up in the backfield, throw him screens on the perimeter, they do some nice creative stuff to get him touches and get him the ball," Bettcher said. "Those are core things that we have to defend."
After struggling out of the gates last week in Buffalo, Arizona cannot afford another slow start at home, especially against a divisional opponent. Much like last week, Bettcher outlined the opponent's offensive philosophy, the only question now is whether the Cardinals have the pieces in place to stop the Rams from succeeding.null