The Breakdown: Cardinals 'O' vs. Rams 'D'

In Week 3, we predicted a big win for the Red Birds over St. Louis. The game ended badly and set off a string of several consecutive heart-breaking losses, which culminated in the Monday Night Collapse against Chicago. While the Rams are still in the playoff hunt (as is everyone in the NFC aside from the Cardinals and Lions), this is definitely a wounded team in decline.

Wide Receivers:

Matt Leinart had considerable success against a soft coverages in Minnesota last week.  He should have similar success this week against a soft Rams secondary.  

The St. Louis cornerbacks are all under 6' tall, all under 200 pounds, and feature only one player, 3rd string CB Tye Hill, who was chosen in the first round.  And he was chosen in the first round of this year's draft.  The Rams have been successful forcing turnovers and intercepting passes this year, but have slowed down in the last few weeks.  One of the reasons for this is injuries.  Fakhir Brown and Hill have been forced into the starting line-up and third-stringer Jerametrius Butler (with one tackle this season) has been pressed into service as the third cornerback.

The trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson hold a tremendous size, talent, and athletic advantage.  The Rams cornerbacks are small and fast, the Cardinals receivers are big and strong.  And, as Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram was fond of saying, fast guys get tired, big guys don't shrink.  If the Cardinals are able to pound on the Rams' undersized and outmatched defensive backs early in the game with a lot of slants, slip screens, quick hitches, and skinny posts, that will open the secondary up for bigger plays in the second half.

In addition, there seems to be a recent emphasis on getting the ball to Fitzgerald and Boldin deep.  Given the fact that both men excel at getting proper body position and catching the ball at its highest point (even though they both lack top-end speed), plus the improved pass protection over the last two games, this seems like a good plan.  Especially against St. Louis' overmatched cornerbacks and weak safeties.

Their two safeties, Corey Chavous and Oshiomogo Atogwe, give announcers more fits in the pronunciation of their names than they tend to off-set the rhythm of an NFL offense.  Atogwe has had an admirable season, given the athletic ability he has to work with, forcing four fumbles and intercepting three passes.  However, it seems as though he's been in the right place at the right time all season.  Turnovers are fickle things that are at least one part luck.  The bottom line is that neither Chavous or Atogwe has the coverage ability or range to be a factor if the Cardinals decide to go over the top.

Then again, the success of the passing game this season has always been contingent on the offensive line's ability to keep their quarterback upright.

Offensive Line:

Leonard Little is a fine player.  Anthony Hargrove is serviceable at best.  La'Roi Glover is surviving on reputation alone and is precisely three days older than dirt.  Jimmy Kennedy is still trying, mostly in vain, to shed the "bust" label that has been applied to him after his underwhelming career statistics after the Rams drafted him 12th overall in 2003.

The Cardinals abandoned the run early last week in light of Minnesota's vaunted rush defense that still ranks 1st in the NFL.  The Rams rush defense currently ranks dead last.  That's right.  They're worse than the Colts.

The line was effective in Week 3, opening sufficient holes for James to run through, and he responded, rushing for 94 yards on 24 carries and adding a touchdown.  Frank Gore demolished the St. Louis front seven last week.  And the Rams' ineptitude at stopping the run seems to have gotten worse in the last five weeks.  This may be the game that James finally notches his first 100 yard game of the season.  But I don't want to jinx it.

In pass protection, the Rams will not be able to apply consistent pressure without bringing extra defenders on the blitz.  And, the Cardinals linemen are simply not talented enough to protect Leinart when St. Louis sends more than they can block.  The end result is that Edgerrin James needs to stay back in pass protection in order to give Leinart enough time to find the open receiver or "hot route" if the Rams decide to run a jail break defense.  With the mismatch of Cardinals receivers vs. Rams secondary, Leinart should not need as much time as usual.

If the Rams decide not to blitz, the edge for the Cardinals becomes even greater.  Much like the Vikings and the Lions, the Rams have been unable to pressure the quarterback by rushing only their front four.  Without additional pressure being applied by a steady diet of blitzes from defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, Leinart will be able to sit back in the pocket, giving Boldin and Fitzgerald the time they need to get deep.

Therefore, the Rams need to decide if they're going to give up a few big plays, or force the Cardinals to execute consistently in their pass protection schemes and routes, driving methodically down the field.  The smart money is on Haslett forcing the Cardinals to be consistent, something they haven't been able to do all year.

Running Backs:

Edgerrin James needs to find running room at some point, and this may be the week to do it.  The Cardinals rank dead last in rushing offense, the Rams rank dead last in rushing defense.  It's a classic case of the movable object versus the resistible force.  One of the two has to give.  Since Edge had success running behind a less effective line in Week 3 (they're still not effective overall, but now they're more effective) and the Rams seem to be heading in the wrong direction defensively with an undersized front seven, St. Louis should be the one to give.

I'm not going to guarantee that Edge will get 100 yards in this one, but I will say this is his best shot through the end of the season (unless San Diego rests all its starters in Week 17).

Will Witherspoon, St. Louis' big free agent acquisition, played outside linebacker when he was with Carolina and may be miscast as a middle linebacker with the Rams.  If the guards can contain, or at least push the tackles up field, and the tackles can contain or push the ends up field, James can follow Nick Leckey up the gut, where the center needs to win the one-on-one battle with Witherspoon.  Once James gets to the second level, he can do some serious damage making the first defender miss or gaining yards after contact (two of his strengths).  Witherspoon is the only linebacker the Cardinals need to worry about, since Brandon Chillar and Pisa Tinoisamoa are lucky to be starting in this league.

If James is able to hit the hole quickly and with authority, he'll have a great deal of success.  He has always excelled at seeing the hole, hitting the hole, and exploding.  If the Rams play the type of defense they've been playing and the Cardinals run the type of plays they've been running, it should be a recipe for success.

Once again, James needs to stay at home in passing situations in order to pick up the extra pass rusher, or to assist any offensive lineman that has found himself beaten at the point of attack.

Game Plan:

The Cardinals basically need to take what the defense gives them.  If the Rams are going to allow Arizona to run the ball effectively, the Cardinals should run on first, second, and third downs, helping Edge to finally gain some confidence and perform some damage control after last week's four carry debacle.  Early success running the ball will open things up for the passing game, hopefully eliminate the blitz, and allow Leinart to freeze Chavous and Atogwe with play-action, hitting Fitzgerald and Boldin deep.

If they are unable to run the ball early, they need to move the ball through the air, primarily in the short-to-intermediate passing game.  With the size advantage that Johnson, Fitzgerald, and Boldin hold, Leinart's ability to read and react, and St. Louis needing to blitz to consistently pressure the quarterback, this should be an extremely successful strategy.  Arizona's talented trio of receivers should be able to get body position on the undersized Rams cornerbacks, box them out, and have an easy day catching slants, ins, outs, and quick hitches.  Boldin should be especially successful, given that he is the best of the Cardinals receivers after the catch.

At some point, the Cardinals need to take some shots down the field.  The running game will work, the short passing game will work, and the Rams will eventually be vulnerable over the top, once the defense (especially the safeties) starts to creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage.  Boldin and Fitzgerald are not prototypical deep threats, but they should be able to catch some long passes over and through the Rams injury depleted secondary.

The key to this game is going to be flexibility.  If the run works, stick with the run.  If the short-to-intermediate passes are working, stick with those.  Bide your time, then go deep.  While they took heat from numerous sources for abandoning the run too early, the decision to do so finally showed some measure of flexibility from Dennis Green and Mike Kruczek.  Too many times this year, Kruczek and Green stuck with their original game plan and original system and were unable to change things up when it wasn't working (as evidenced by Edge's 31 carries for 55 yards against the Bears and too many other, painful instances to mention).

There will be lots of opportunities to exploit this defense on Sunday.  The Cardinals simply need to seize those opportunities and take full advantage of what the defense gives them.

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