One of the most difficult aspects of trying to defend the Rams is that you have to stop Steven Jackson first and foremost, but they still have all their weapons from the Martz Era. If you stop Jackson, you still have to stop their wide-outs.
The Rams have a number of fast, talented receivers that are excellent route runners and have an uncanny ability to find the soft spots in zones. Torry Holt and the ageless Isaac Bruce headline a very talented corps that also includes speedsters Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis. With all these weapons at their disposal, including rookie tight end Joe Klopfenstein, St. Louis would appear to have the Cardinals outmanned and outnumbered in the passing game.
The only catch is that head coach Scott Linehan has remained focused throughout the season on a power running attack with third year tailback Steven Jackson serving as the battering ram. Given that power running formations usually employ two (or even one) receiver, it will be difficult for the St. Louis to get all their talent on the field for first and second down. This, of course, works in Arizona's favor, since they have Antrelle Rolle and the physical presence of Eric Green (or, David Macklin, whoever Dennis Green decides to start) cornerback position. Strong Safety Adrian Wilson's expertise lies more in the areas of blitzing and run support than coverage, and free safety Robert Griffith was never considered to be particularly spry or skilled in coverage, even when he played for the Browns. In 2002.
What the Cardinals have to be cognizant of, though, is the fact that Linehan will use his reputation for power running to his advantage in the passing game in the form of play-action (especially on early downs in the first quarter). If he can call play action at the right time in the right situation, Holt or Bruce could burn the Arizona secondary for a long, quick, early score. However, since the run game for St. Louis may not be a huge factor (see below), defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast should be able to have his safeties sit back in a Cover 2 formation and protect the deep area of the field, leaving the linebackers to fill the short and intermediate zones and having Wilson and Griffith only fill in on run support when necessary.
The inherent flaw in the Cover 2 scheme has always been the holes in the zones (deep middle, intermediate routes to the sidelines, some slant and post routes depending on severity). In order to prevent St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger from taking advantage of those holes, the defensive line needs to pressure him and force him to throw earlier than he'd like (even if he's one of the best in the business at holding onto the ball until the last possible second).
Ordinarily, this would be a pretty even battle at the line of scrimmage and in the passing game. But, with injuries to center Andy McCollum (out for the season with a knee injury) and All-World left tackle Orlando Pace (also placed on injured reserve), and Richie Incognito (listed as questionable), the advantage most certainly goes to the Cardinals; even with Bert Berry on injured reserve for the Cardinals. Antonio Smith needs to beat reserve tackle Todd Steussie (who was already a veteran when Robert Griffith started came into the NFL with the Vikings) to the quarterback in the passing game. When the Rams are involved in known passing situations, Arizona would be best served to play conservative and ration out there blitzes when they need to "make something happen." For the most part, ends Berry and Chike Okeafor (matched up against former first rounder Alex Barron) should be able to beat their man to the signal caller and wreak a great deal of havoc in passing situations.
It should be added that, since Linehan seems to have a fanatical commitment to running ball, Arizona stands an excellent chance of winning a lot of gambles on first and second down by run-blitzing to fill the gaps at the line of scrimmage. By attacking the gaps and sending their linebackers and Wilson through the holes in the St. Louis line, the Cardinals should be able to make a number of plays in the backfield, forcing the Rams into a lot of early 3rd and long situations as well as a number of early three-and-outs. While it seems counter-intuitive to blitz on first and second down and play straight defense on third down, that may be a recipe for success on Sunday.
Of course, Steven Jackson has faced stacked defenses and run behind this patchwork offensive line before. And done well. So it will still be up to the Cardinals to execute, win the battles at the line of scrimmage, and get to Marc Bulger early and often.
The linebackers need to stay true to their zones and guard their man in the passing game. Pure and simple. If Bulger is able to sit in the pocket and wait for his receivers to come free, it's going to be a long day for the Cardinals. If, however, the defensive line is able to penetrate and collapse the pocket like to looks like they'll be able to, Gerald Hayes, Karlos Dansby, and Orlando Huff simply need to stay in their assignments and wait for errant/unadvisable throws to come their way. And, it goes without saying that they need to take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves.
In the running game, they need to fill their gaps with authority and tackle Jackson on the first try. Jackson's a big, powerful back that isn't easy to bring down one-on-one. He'll be running a lot of designed dives, guts, and sweep plays to take advantage of his ability to run north and south. If he's able to get on a roll and start running downhill, the Rams will get into a rhythm, play-action will start to be wildly successful, and the Cardinals could find themselves down big early.
The most imperative task for the linebackers is to tackle, tackle, tackle. Linehan will stick to the run even if he doesn't have early success. But he'll really stick to it (in a bad way for the home team) if he does have early success. Since the line doesn't seem fit to win the battles in the trenches, it will be up to Jackson to make yards after contact and make the first guy miss. If he's tackled by the first guy to get a shot at him, this will deflate the Rams, excite the home crowd, and make any comeback St. Louis attempts an uphill battle.
And, with the advantages the Cardinals have along the line, they are in a far superior position than are the Rams. As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, "If you find yourself in a situation where you hold a tremendous tactical and physical advantage, blitz like hell and bring the fight to them." Or something like that.
Blitz on first and second down to contain Jackson. The best way to beat a run oriented team is to stop them on first and second down and force them into third and long situations. Running teams, on average, don't pass the ball well and vice versa. However, where the Cardinals are going to run into issues is when they actually get the Rams into the third and long situations.
When faced with that situation, Linehan will send out his third down package, which also includes talented reserves Curtis and McDonald. Once all four explosive targets get unleashed on the secondary, they can create a lot of problems for the Cardinals and convert a lot of first downs. Up until now, teams have been blitzing the Rams in these situations in the hopes that they can force Bulger into a either a quick decision that results in minimal yardage or a bad decision that results in a turnover. Since Bulger is most comfortable being blitzed in a four wide receiver formation, however, the tactic has backfired and the Rams have been able to turn third downs into first downs.
Here, the Cardinals need to be patient, only blitzing sporadically and letting Smith, Dockett, Clancy, and Okeafor beat their man to the quarterback. If they have early success collapsing the pocket, Bulger will be in for a long day. In addition, they need to bring Dansby, Wilson, and Huff on blitzes in an attempt to overload one side (most likely the side Pace used to cover, the left side) and force Bulger into making bad decisions.
Given the match-up advantage the Cardinals have on offense vs. St. Louis' defense, Arizona could jump out to an early lead. At some point (the earlier the better) the Rams will be forced into known passing situations with Bulger running for his life behind a patchwork offensive line. Eventually, the defense should take over and Bulger will be a sitting duck.
That's if the Cardinals defense can stop the run and force a number of early three-and-outs. They certainly haven't done a good job of that thus far this season.