The Arizona Cardinals fell flat to open the season against Washington. The home loss featured a struggling offense and a defense unusually porous against the run. The Cardinals have their chance at redemption on Sunday with a trip to Los Angeles to face the Rams. It is the first divisional matchup for Arizona, and one they are not expected to win. The Rams are coming off a short week after a victorious Monday night against the Raiders. Arizona dropped both meetings against Los Angeles in 2017 but many changes have taken place since that time. Ahead of the first 2018 meeting we take a look at what to expect when the Cardinals offense takes the field.
Run the Football
The Rams defense is fierce on paper. They boast a top-tier secondary complete with cornerback Marcus Peters. The defensive line has talented tackle Ndamukong Suh and possibly the best defensive player in the NFL, Aaron Donald. On paper the defense should be impenetrable, but as is often repeated by pundits and coaches, anything can happen once the teams get between the lines.
On Monday night the Rams defense struggled against a strong Oakland run game. Marshawn Lynch and the Raiders focused the interior of the line as an attempt to neutralize a normally active Los Angeles pass rush. In the first half the Raiders were able to move the ball consistently and keep the Rams offense off the field. Unfortunately for the Raiders, they soon strayed from the ground game and abandoned it entirely once the deficit grew.
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Arizona has one of the best running backs in the league and a revamped offensive line that performed admirably against Washington. The line was a priority in the offseason with key signee Justin Pugh brought in to shore up the interior. Center Mason Cole played beyond his rookie status on Sunday and will have to continue to learn on the job against the tough Rams defensive line. The power of the Cardinals run game is up the middle with Cole, Pugh, and Mike Iupati. The trio will need to find a way to keep Suh and Donald from getting penetration and disrupting the timing of the offense.
Get The Ball Moving
A healthy run game, one able to get four and five yard chunks, opens up opportunities in the passing game. Against Washington the offense was unable to find a rhythm in the passing game. Playing off of the run game allows for deeper routes to come open via play-action. With the likes of Donald and Suh rushing the quarterback, any extra time allotted Bradford means more time for receivers to get open down the field.
The Cardinals will need more production out of the receiving corps against the Rams. In week one the unit combined for just 12 targets, 10 of which come from Larry Fitzgerald. Rookie Christian Kirk was the only other wide receiver targeted in the loss, catching one of the two passes thrown his way. The wide receiver room was a major question mark heading into the season and continues to be one outside of Fitzgerald. While the front office has chosen to stick with the guys in the room, the Cardinals will need to trust the unit if the offense is to have a chance.
At the end of the day the offense needs to find a balanced attack to keep the Rams offense off the field and put points on the scoreboard. Coordinator Mike McCoy will be up against the Wade Phillips. McCoy will need to call a solid game to have a chance against Phillips’ defense. He enjoys the blitz and finds ways to bring pressure. A healthy balance of screens and short passes will help supplement the ground game. Ideally Johnson will get upwards of 25 touches or more on Sunday. This would mean the offense has possessed the ball much more than against Washington. It will also mean that Johnson has been able to move the football and the offense is clicking.
What Will Happen?
The offense faces a major test in the Rams defense. Arizona will need a solid performance from each unit on the offense, especially from Bradford and the receiving corps. Los Angeles will look to suffocate the run game from the start so the offense will need to push back and make big plays down the field. The offense can’t rely on Fitzgerald and Johnson to be the saviors of the game. From playcalling to execution, Arizona needs to avoid penalties and turnovers on the road. On paper the Rams defense should have no issues. The Cardinals have talent but are also in a new system with many new faces. Can Arizona find some footing and put pressure on the Rams defense? If the offense can run the football effectively and make plays in the passing game, Arizona will have a puncher’s chance. Come Sunday, that is all anyone can ask for.