Los Angeles Rams Gameplan: It’s Anybody’s Ballgame in Arizona

by Blaine Grisak
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The Los Angeles Rams head to Phoenix in Week 14 to take on the Arizona Cardinals in a highly anticipated NFC West matchup. Earlier in the season, this matchup was thought to possible be for the NFC West title. However, a three-game losing streak from the Rams has made this more of just another game.

Even if the Rams win on Monday Night, it’s still an uphill climb for the division. The Rams would likely need to win out and the Cardinals would need to have another late-season collapse with the Cowboys, Colts, and Seahawks still on deck. If the Rams and Cardinals finish with the same record, it’s Arizona who gets the tiebreaker due to record against common opponents.

The Cardinals are in the driver’s seat, but the Rams can still very well make noise. And even if the Rams lose on Monday night, the season is far from lost. The 2021 NFL season has been a weird one with no true dominant team. This season feels like the ultimate “get hot at the right time” type of year.

Let’s put it this way. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently lead the NFL in DVOA at 28.7% through 13 weeks. Through 13 weeks, that is the second-lowest number in the DVOA era behind only the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. To put it simply, it’s anybody’s ball game.

In 2016, the Atlanta Falcons sat at 7-5 through 12 games. They rallied off six straight wins and led 28-3 in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots in what should have been their seventh.

If the Rams lose to the Cardinals on Monday night, they’ll have the same record as that Falcons team that took advantage of a non-dominant year. Both teams are built similarly with dominant offenses and defenses that are good enough to get by. Sometimes it takes one win to flip the switch and give a team the confidence that they can start to stack wins together. In 2016, it was a 42-14 win against the 4-8 Rams that catapulted their run. Could a 37-7 win against the 2-9 Jaguars be what the Rams needed to get on track?

There’s a chance that the Rams would have to make their run on the road in the postseason, but also a good chance that the Rams do get a “bye” in Week 18 against the 49ers with the number five seed locked up.

The Rams were built with the end game in mind. A lot has changed since the Week 4 loss to the Cardinals. Since then, the Rams have traded for Von Miller and signed Odell Beckham Jr. As the weeks go on, those two get more and more comfortable.

Since he’s joined the Rams, Miller leads Rams edge rushers with eight pressures. Odell Beckham Jr. has two touchdowns since arriving in Los Angeles which is two more than he had all year in Cleveland. These are two game-breakers. As the weeks go on, their effect will be felt.

The Arizona Cardinals are 10-2, but have had the luxury of sneaking up on teams and having the aroma of being the “same old Cardinals”. They won’t have that same luxury against the Rams that they had in Week 4.

The NFL lacks a single dominant team this year. however, there is a cluster of very good teams that lead the pack. The Rams are one of those teams. This is a team that still ranks sixth in overall DVOA, fifth in offense DVOA, and sixth in defense DVOA. On their best days, there aren’t many teams that can beat the Rams. A lot of their losses have come from self-inflicted wounds, specifically turnovers.

The Rams will go into Monday night’s game as 2.5 point underdogs. In other words – it’s anybody’s ball game, just like the rest of the NFC.

Five Los Angeles Rams Players to Watch

1. QB Matthew Stafford

Quarterback wins are something, aren’t they? In the ultimate team sport, analysts still use the record of a single player as an actual stat. With all of these other analytics, we’re still using the one that lacks the most context. Quarterbacks wins are essentially just a stat used to create narrative. Well, a narrative has been created for Matthew Stafford.

Stafford is 9-70 against teams with a winning record. After a three-game losing streak those whispers just got louder and louder. Let’s use an actual stat though, shall we? In EPA+CPOE composite, Stafford ranked 34th out of 36 quarterbacks. His EPA alone of -0.129 ranked 33rd. Stafford needs to pick up his play against the better teams. We know he can do it. Against the Buccaneers he had 343 yards and four touchdowns. He can change the narrative on Monday Night.

2. RB Sony Michel

Sony Michel became the first 100 yard rusher for the Rams this season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He added a physicality to the Rams run game and seemed to give the offense exactly what it needed. In fact, 80 of Michel’s 121 yards came after first contact.

In the first meeting against the Cardinals, it was a Michel fumble that completely changed the game. Michel will likely be the premier running back on Monday Night and will have a chance to redeem himself. The Cardinals are giving up the second-highest yards per carry. While they have the third rated pass offense via DVOA, they have the 15th rated run defense.

3. EDGE Von Miller

The Rams traded for Von Miller for games like this against the Cardinals. Since joining the Rams, he leads Rams edge rushers in pressures. The Rams will need a big game from Miller on Monday Night Football.

Miller has the utmost respect for Murray given that the two players play high school football in Texas. Murray has been sacked on average more than twice per game. The Rams got to Murray three times in Week 4. They’ll need to get to Murray again on Monday and that starts with getting pressure off the edge with Miller.

4. LB Ernest Jones

Ernest Jones is playing more and more on defense and it’s paying off. He played 95% of the snaps against the Jaguars and tied his career-high of nine tackles. Troy Reeder has been a liability on defense. With Jones playing better and playing more, it’s possible that Jones sees a good amount of playing time against the Cardinals.

Jones needs to do better against the run, but in coverage, Jones has the third-highest coverage grade among rookie linebackers this season according to PFF. His 74.4 quarterback rating when targeted also leads rookie linebackers. Jones only played 10 snaps in Week 4. He should see more action on Monday Night.

5. WR Odell Beckham Jr.

Despite not joining the Rams until Week 10, Odell Beckham Jr. will still be playing the Arizona Cardinals twice this season. With the Cleveland Browns in Week 6, Beckham Jr. had five receptions for 79 yards.

Beckham has two touchdowns with the Rams and seems to be more involved in the offense since joining just less than a month ago. He has two touchdowns in Los Angeles which is two more than he had in Cleveland. He and Stafford and gaining more chemistry by the week which is good news for the Rams offense. Arizona will likely try to take away Cooper Kupp which means Beckham will need to step up to the challenge.

Five Keys to Victory for the Los Angeles Rams

1. Stick with the Heavier Formations

The Rams used a lot of heavy formations against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week and they worked. Running the football, the Rams had nine yards per carry when running from jumbo. Additionally, the Rams were back to running more 12 personnel.

When playing in more than 10% 12 personnel this season, the Rams are 5-0. Contrarily, when the Rams run 95% or more 11 personnel, they are 2-3, including their last three losses. The Rams seemed to find something with these personnel groupings. It’s best that they don’t go away from them.

2. Stick with the Run Game

This ties right into the first key of running heavier personnel. However, the Rams need to stick to running the ball as well. The Cardinals give up the second-most yards per carry as they give up an average of 4.7.  In Week 4, Darrell Henderson had success 14 carries for 89 yards.

In other games that the Cardinals have lost or gotten close to losing, teams have had success on the ground. Davin Cook had 22 attempts for 121 yds in a one point loss to the Cardinals in Week 2. Later in the year, James Robinson averaged 5.9 yards per carry with 88 yards as the Jaguars led late into the third quarter. In the loss against the Packers, the Cardinals allowed AJ Dillon to rush for 78 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. Lastly, Christian McCaffrey averaged over seven yards per carry as he had 13 attempts for 95 yards for the Panthers.

3. Take Care of the Football

In losses this season, it’s been the turnovers that have really hurt the Rams. In games that the Rams have won this season, they are +10 in turnover differential. The offense has turned the ball over five times in those games. Contrarily, they have a  -7 turnover differential in losses, turning the ball over eight times.

The early pick-sixes and turnovers that lead to easy points have really hurt the Rams in big games this season. Going back to the Cardinals game, it was a forced throw deep to DeSean Jackson that started the avalanche. Leading 3-0, if Stafford takes the easy throw, the Rams are maybe able to get into field goal range or take a 10-0 lead. That’s a different ball game.

4. Win on Third Down

The Cardinals rank third in the NFL in third down offense, converting 43.8% of the time. However, drives don’t stop on third downs for the Cardinals. The Cardinals have gone for it on fourth down 15 times this season and have converted 66.7% of those tries. The Rams defense must win on third down to avoid getting to manageable fourth downs.

It’s the same story on the other side of the ball. The Rams rank fifth on offense in third down conversions this year, but that doesn’t tell the full story. They’ve struggled over the last month. The Rams were among the last in the league in the month of November and started 0-for-6 to start the game against Jacksonville. Additionally, the Rams defense ranks near the bottom of the league in giving up third downs on defense.

5. Win in the Red Zone

These seem obvious, but they are the differences in the big games. The Cardinals went a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone to start the game in Week 4. Instead of 13 or even 17 points, the Cardinals came out of the first half leading 24-13. A one-score game going into the half going a long way.

On the flip side, the Rams offense went 1-for-2 in the first half in the red zone and failed to punch the ball in at the one later in the game. That’s a difference of 11 points. The Rams lost 37-20 in Week 4, but that game could have gone very differently if the Rams capitalize in moments.

Five Matchups To Watch

1. Raheem Morris vs. Kliff Kingsbury

Kliff Kingbury got the upper hand in the first meeting between these two teams, but Raheem Morris has now seen the Cardinals and they won’t catch him by surprise. We’ll see how Morris adjusts and if it’s enough to get a big win on the road in Arizona.

2. Sean McVay vs. Vance Joseph

Outside of a garbage time touchdown late, Vance Joseph held the McVay offense to 13 points. That’s a good accomplishment considering where the Rams were at early in the season. Joseph has been one of the more impressive defensive coordinators this season and has the Cardinals playing much better than many expected. We’ll see if McVay sticks with the heavier personnel grouping.

3. Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Robert Alford

Cooper Kupp will likely be handled by Byron Murphy who is having a good year. However, Robert Alford is currently giving up only 5.0 yards per target this season Among 80 defensive players that’ve defensed at least 50 targets that ranks third in the NFL. The Rams need their other wide receivers to win their matchups and that starts with Beckham. 

4. Ernest Jones vs. Zach Ertz

Outside of the Von Miller trade for the Rams, the Cardinals made a win-now trade of their own. The Cardinals traded for Zach Ertz and he’s found his place in Kingsbury’s offense. Since joining the Cardinals he has 23 catches for 279 yards and three touchdowns. Jones will need to take Ertz out of the passing game in the middle of the field.

5. Greg Gaines vs. Josh Jones

Greg Gaines has played very well over the last couple of weeks. In fact, he trails just Aaron Donald in quarterback pressures for the Rams while remaining solid in the run game. Jones has given up 22 pressures this season which leads the Cardinals offensive line. If Gaines can win the matchup and disrupt the pocket for Murray. it’ll be up to the Rams edge rushers to contain and make plays.

Five Storylines to Follow

1. Matthew Stafford Crumbles in Big Games

Stafford is 9-70 against teams with a winning record…yada, yada, yada.

With that said, this will be a storyline in this game and one to keep an eye on. Despite rumors that Stafford might be hurt, the Rams need the most out of their star quarterback on Monday night. The Rams can afford to lose, but they’d remain that team that can’t beat the good teams in the league. The Rams need a win against a solid team late in the season and a win against the Cardinals on the road would give them that.

2. Cardinals Haven’t Swept the Rams Since 2014

The Rams had beaten the Cardinals in each of the last eight meetings prior to Week 4’s loss. However, the Cardinals haven’t swept the Rams since the 2014 season. In that year, the Rams lost 31-14 behind Austin Davis and then 12-6 with Shaun Hill under center. After getting blown out in Week 4, the Rams are going to look to avoid the sweep on Monday Night.

3. Sean McVay vs. Kliff Kingsbury

Everyone talks about which coach is going to be the next Sean McVay. What if that’s Kliff Kingsbury. These two coaches have a friendship and McVay almost hired Kingsbury after he was fired from Texas Tech. Kingsbury joined USC as the offensive coordinator before getting hired by the Arizona Cardinals as their head coach.

Kingsbury didn’t want to lose to McVay for a fifth straight time in Week 4. After losing in Week 4, McVay isn’t going to want Kingsbury to beat him twice in the same season. What will McVay have up his sleeve?

4. Are the Cardinals Contenders?

Despite being 10-2, not many analysts see the Arizona Cardinals as big-time threats in the NFC. The Cardinals have had the luxury of sneaking up on teams early on in the year. However, heading into the final month and a half, they aren’t going to catch many teams by surprise. A second win against the Rams would cement them among the top-4 in the NFC.

5. NFC West Race on Life Support

Can the Rams technically win the NFC West? Yes. However, it’s still very unlikely. With a loss though, that unlikely chance becomes almost nil.

The Cardinals do have a difficult upcoming schedule with the Colts, Cowboys, and Seahawks to finish the season.  If the Rams manage to win out and beat teams like the Ravens and Vikings on the road who are above average while the Cardinals lose to the Rams and two of those three to finish the year, the Rams could take over the NFC West. As you can see though, that scenario remains very unlikely.

Game Prediction

Like the Packers game, this is a game that I’ve been conflicted about this week. The Rams seemed to find an offensive identity last week against the Jaguars even though it was the Jaguars. Despite that, the Cardinals are still the best team in the NFL.

With that said, the Cardinals are only 3-2 at home this season and 7-0 on the road. Does McVay pull off a coaching masterpiece to beat Kingsbury and the Cardinals? Can the Rams win this game and go on a late-season run? It’ll come down to a fast start on offense and not turning the ball over while taking care of business on defense.

Still, I give the Cardinals a slight edge and am optimistic that the Rams can pull off an upset.

Prediction: Cardinals 31, Rams 23


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