Five weeks ago, the Rams traveled to Arizona to take on a Cardinals team that had lost only one game to that point. Bruce Arians was the talk of the NFL, Todd Bowles was one of the hotter head coaching candidates for 2015 and the Cardinals were closing in on the No. 1 spot in the NFC playoff picture.
How times have changed.
While looking ahead to Thursday night’s matchup, it dawned on me that I’m more confident in the Rams’ ability to secure victory than I am the Cardinals. With a win over the Rams and a little help from other teams, 10-3 Arizona can clinch a playoff berth at the Dome on Thursday. Even though the Rams haven’t been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the odds that they’ll be playing beyond December are slim.
Yet, it’s the Rams that currently have the dominating defense. It’s the Rams who have the ability to lean on their running game and it’s the Rams who arguably have a more stable situation at quarterback, at least for the moment.
Simply put, the Rams are ascending while the Cardinals are on shaky ground despite being in position to secure a spot in this year’s playoffs. Realize that I’m not suggesting the Rams are in a better situation. From a record standpoint, the Rams would obviously rather be in the Cardinals’ shoes and closing in on a postseason berth than merely looking to finish the 2014 season with a winning or .500 record. At the end of the day, Arians has his team fighting for a playoff spot as opposed to a 9-7 record.
But I’m sure Arians would give anything to have some semblance of a running game, especially with Drew Stanton struggling. The 30-year-old quarterback was overwhelmed by the Seahawks in Week 12, completely inept versus a horrific Falcons defense in Week 13, and merely did enough for the Cardinals to sneak out a 17-14 victory over Kansas City in Week 14. At his core, Arians wants to beat teams vertically through his well-designed passing game but he also understands that being one-dimensional with a limited signal-caller isn’t advantageous. And now that starting running back Andre Ellington is out for the year following sports-hernia surgery, Arians’ options at running back are dwindling.
That leads us back to the Rams. Over their past six games, the Rams defense is holding opponents to 3.26 yards per carry. Granted, that statistic is somewhat misleading based on their opponents. Arizona, Oakland and Washington aren’t running on any opponent, while Denver’s renewed commitment to the ground game started after their loss to the Rams.
But it’s only fair to point out that the Rams were gashed on the ground earlier this year, which included surrendering 144 yards to the Bucs’ Bobby Rainey. Since that point, Rainey has only gained 250 yards on 68 carries over 10 games. He was able to feast on a poor St. Louis run defense for one game and has struggled since.
The Rams turned a corner following that embarrassing loss to Kansas City in Week 8. Robert Quinn has found his 2013 form, Aaron Donald sets up shop in opponents’ backfields on a weekly basis, and linebackers Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis are thriving in Gregg Williams’ relentless scheme. Unlike in the first two months of the season, Williams’ blitzes are finally getting home as the Rams have racked up 34 sacks since they posted just one QB takedown in the first six weeks. The “Sack City” hashtag is no longer a punchline.
By consistently stopping the run, the Rams defense is winning more on first and second downs, which has led to opposing signal-callers constantly being in third-and-long.
It’s hard for opponents to sustain drives when their signal-callers are constantly in third-and-forever against a relentless Rams’ pass rush. The Rams aren’t only shutting teams out, they’re also keeping opponents out of the red zone entirely.
Now the question becomes, can they keep it up? Can they continue to win with a suffocating defense, a sound running game and a quarterback that’s asked to manage games as opposed to winning them? That formula has worked over their past six games and as long as Shaun Hill takes care of the football, I see their success growing. At some point this team has to find a franchise quarterback but for now, it’s apparent that the Rams can continue to lean on their defense to win games.
Granted, the Cardinals are a different animal than the Raiders and Redskins. But given the issues that currently plague Arizona, coupled with the Rams’ strengths, my confidence level is higher in the team that is 6-7 as opposed to the one that’s 10-3.
How times have changed.