Here we are again.
For Arizona, the second round of NFC West contests begins this week against St. Louis, while the Rams have already started. For both teams Sunday is a must-win, but for two drastically different reasons.
A victory for the Cardinals would break an eight-game NFC West losing streak, but more importantly keep alive any chance at making the playoffs. The Rams need a win to potentially avoid finishing last in the division.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner sat down to discuss the upcoming matchup.
Weinfuss: How different are the Rams with Kellen Clemens at the helm? How has the offense adjusted?
Wagoner: The offense has been much more run-heavy with Clemens at quarterback, but it was already headed that way long before he took over for Sam Bradford. Clemens has been exactly as advertised. That means his teammates love how hard he plays and his willingness to give himself up to gain a few extra yards. He's an excellent leader. On the flip side, he's not very accurate and has lived up to that with a completion percentage mostly at or below his career numbers. In an ideal world for the Rams, Clemens doesn't have to do much in terms of throwing the ball. They've had their most success against teams like Indianapolis and Chicago when the running game is rolling and they can work off play-action. Clemens completed just 19 passes in those two victories but made the most of them. That has to be the formula for the Rams to win with Clemens under center.
It seems a lot has changed for the Cardinals since that first meeting in the opener. What do you see as the biggest difference for them since that time that's allowed them to compete every week?
Weinfuss: Those actually are two different answers. The biggest difference has been this offense and how comfortable the Cardinals seem to finally be in it. It’s cliché, but the light bulb really did go off. And since it happened in Week 8 against Atlanta, the offense has been moving the ball like it couldn’t during the first seven weeks. The wide receivers aren’t confused anymore, the running game has emerged thanks to the offensive line getting better -- with the exception of Sunday against the Eagles. Bruce Arians’ scheme can be confusing and it took the Cards a while to sort through. However, what’s kept them in games is their defense. The defensive line has been a brick wall up front, but it’s the play of the linebackers that has balanced the entire unit. With Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington running free and covering ground sideline to sideline, it frees up the line to do its thing and the secondary to keep pressing.
Staying on defense, Robert Quinn torched the Cardinals in Week 1. Has the defensive end improved since and what can he do against a new, inexperienced left tackle?
Wagoner: The short answers: Yes and a lot. The scary thing about Quinn is that he is still scratching the surface of his immense potential. As a pass-rusher he's already elite, but the biggest thing he's added to his game is the ability to stop the run. He's become a better-than-average run-stopper, which keeps him on the field all three downs and allows him to rush the passer in unconventional passing downs. The entire St. Louis defensive line is rushing the passer quite well right now, and so long as the Rams face a quarterback who isn't all that mobile, its members have a chance to have big weeks every time out. I don't think I'm telling Arizona anything it doesn't already know, but the Cardinals would be well served to expend extra resources on blocking Quinn this time out.
Which brings me to the obvious follow-up question: What kind of shape is the Arizona offensive line in right now and has the unit reached a point where it can prevent the Rams' pass rush from taking over one of these meetings?
Weinfuss: Realistically, no, the Cardinals' offensive line hasn't reached that point. For the most part, the line has been stable compared to last season, when it turned over almost as many times as it allowed a sack. This year, the only big change was the trade of Levi Brown after Week 4, and since then the starting lineup hasn’t changed. But that cohesiveness doesn’t mean it’s able to stop the Rams' pass rush. I might have thought differently had the Rams come to town last week, but after watching the regression against the Eagles, the chances of Arizona slowing Quinn aren’t very high.
Speaking of stopping someone, when did you see Tavon Austin start to really get it as a rookie and how high is his ceiling?
Wagoner: Well, his obvious breakthrough game was the three-touchdown performance against Indianapolis. He had another big play the following week against Chicago. But there have been many factors that contributed to what took him a while to get going, and expecting him to make big plays every week is still asking too much. He's produced about what I expected from him this season. As you know, rookie receivers take time to adjust. Much like you're seeing with Michael Floyd right now, Austin still has plenty of growing to do. As for his ceiling, he's got the ability to be a guy who eventually makes game-changing plays on a week-to-week basis. His speed and elusiveness are unmatched by most players around the league. The upside is off the charts, but he'll have to become a better route-runner, cut down on drops and have an offense that consistently knows how to use him.
This week it's the Cardinals' job to stop him. That defense is obviously playing well right now. What weaknesses do you see from Arizona defensively and where are the few teams having success offensively against them finding it?
Weinfuss: There’s really one true weakness and that’s tight ends. It started in Week 1 against the Rams, when Jared Cook torched them for 141 yards and two touchdowns, and it hasn’t stopped since. The common belief around the Cardinals was that when Washington returned from a four-game suspension, he’d be the answer to stopping tight ends. But even that wasn’t the case. Arizona’s safeties are too small to combat some of the bigger, basketball player-type tight ends around the league. The Cards did hold Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez to just 26 yards, but that was because Arizona’s defense made Gonzalez the focus of the game plan. Offenses are generally figuring out that by lining up a tight end out wide, he’s usually covered by a defensive back. But against Philadelphia, the Cardinals sent Washington in coverage, and while he let up a couple of passes, he was able to hold his own.