The Arizona Cardinals defense gave up 21 first half points en route to the season opening loss to Washington. The unit struggled to stop the run and keep tabs on the running back coming out of the back field. It was a surprising start for Arizona’s defense, the side of the ball many felt comfortable with entering the season. Sunday brings a chance at redemption and a chance to take an early lead in the division. Standing in the way of redemption is the Los Angeles Rams. How will the defense attempt to slow down the Rams high-powered offense? Can the Cardinals contain explosive running back Todd Gurley? Today we take a look at what to expect when the defense takes the field against a tough Los Angeles offense.
Set the Edge
The Rams run the ball very well. They do so using the zone run concept. The offensive line attempts to flow as a solid unit right or left. They then attempt to get to the second level to open up alleys for Gurley and the running backs to burst through. The easiest way to disrupt the run game is getting penetration into the backfield. That is easier said than done. The Cardinals will need to split the gaps as the offensive line slides to the side. One way is to slant in the direction the play is going toward. The penetration caused slows down the runner which makes sudden cuts difficult.
Aside from stunting the line or slanting playside, the Cardinals will need to set the edge. On outside zone runs the outside blocker attempts to create a seal to allow the runner outside and away from the pursuit. Setting the edge prevents that from happening and turns the play back to the middle of the field. The idea is to keep containment and prevent the big gain. In previous years the Cardinals did this using the outside linebacker to dive down to the line of scrimmage to set the edge while the ends attempted to get penetration. The new scheme relies more on the interior of the line to get the penetration with the ends attempting to keep the edge.
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The key will be containing the run with the front seven. Committing eight or nine defenders to the run opens up play action routes downfield. To make matters worse, if the defensive line struggles to gain penetration, the Rams will be able to use multiple receiver sets to run the football and put pressure on defenders attempting to make a tackle in the open field. The Cardinals need a strong game from the interior of the line. Defensive tackles Corey Peters and Robert Nkemdiche can be the difference makers on Sunday.
Get Pressure on Goff
The Rams passing attack can beat you deep with Brandin Cooks or with the short game featuring Cooper Kupp and Gurley. It is next to impossible for a defense to expect tight coverage on every play. That said, tight coverage does not preclude completions, as quarterback Jared Goff is as accurate as they come. Slowing down the passing game is possible only if the Cardinals can put consistent pressure on Goff.
The Cardinals registered three sacks against Washington. The Rams surrendered just one sack against the Raiders. Arizona’s pass rush on paper is much more formidable, although it would be buoyed if defensive end Markus Golden were available. As it stands the team’s sack leader in 2016 remains out for Sunday’s clash. Golden returned to practice this week after missing nearly 12 months due to an ACL tear. The Cardinals still have the 2017 NFL sack king in Chandler Jones. Jones battled a pair of tough offensive tackles against Washington but managed to register a sack.
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Part of the problem for Arizona will be keeping their eyes focused on the football. Los Angeles employs movement pre-snap to distract the eyes of the defense. The Rams do this often through play-action or running a receiver across the formation to fake a jet sweep. Movement often freezes the defense or gets defenders flowing in the wrong direction. The momentary pause gives Goff and his receivers time to get in position for a big play. Expect defensive coordinator Al Holcomb to test the Rams protection with blitz packages from the corner and safety positions. One of the sacks against Washington came from Patrick Peterson. If the Cardinals defense hopes to slow down the Rams offense, it will need to put pressure on Goff and force the talented third year quarterback to throw the ball earlier than he’d like to.
Prediction: Rams win 27-10
On paper the Cardinals have no business being in this game. The Rams are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile the Cardinals are loaded with question marks. Arizona’s ability to control the football on offense will be the deciding factor. The offense will need to sustain drives and score points, two things missing from week one. The defense will need to limit large chunk plays for Los Angeles and find a way to contain the Rams run game. In the end the Rams have the superior talent and coaching. The Cardinals put up a fight but it isn’t enough.