National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Rams-Cardinals

+ Sunday was a perfect example of why Jared Cook is such a weapon in the passing game. On his 47-yard near-score in the first quarter, Arizona lined up in man-to-man coverage with a single-high safety over the top. Because the Rams lined up in a three-wide set with two receivers flanked to the left of the formation, the single-high safety shaded to that side. That left Cook one-on-one with linebacker Karlos Dansby, who couldn’t keep pace with the tight end after he initially tried to disrupt his route. Cook flew up the seam, made the catch on a perfectly thrown ball by Sam Bradford and, if it weren’t for Tyrann Mathieu’s outstanding effort, he would have scored.

+ Cook was also instrumental on the final play of the third quarter. With the Rams trailing by 11, Cook went in motion and ran a deep drag over the middle of the field. Just like the 47-yard reception he had in the first quarter, the Rams utilized play-action. This time, however, Arizona was in zone coverage, and the linebackers bit on the fake. Bradford waited perfectly until Cook cleared the zone and, with a defender chasing on the play, the Rams picked up a crucial 36-yard gain. Jeff Fisher knew when the team signed Cook that all he needed was a quarterback to get him the ball accurately and on time, and for an offensive coordinator to design plays to utilize his size and speed. After hauling in seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns (it should have been three), fans see why the Rams signed Cook to such a big contract on the first day of free agency.

+ From the interception-turned-touchdown on the deflected screen pass to the fumble that Daryl Richardson was fortunate to fall on, Bradford had his share of frustrations in the victory. But all in all, he continues to look like a more confident player. Accuracy continues to be his strong suit, and he continues to show poise in the pocket. It was also great to see him flash some mobility on the 12-yard completion to Chris Givens on the second-quarter drive that tied the score at 10 right before halftime. Plus, while the 299 passing yards, two touchdowns and 100.7 QB rating were nice, the fourth-quarter comeback gave context to the final numbers. Bradford said it weeks ago: Big stats don’t mean anything if you don’t win.

+ The Rams didn’t allow a sack for the third consecutive game. That’s huge. That’s huge for Bradford’s continued development. That’s huge for the continuity of this offense. And that’s huge for an organization that has had its fair share of issues up front over the years. While Richardson gained only 3.2 yards per carry, the running lanes were also wider than they were in the preseason. Overall, the offensive line played well.

+ All that talk about Cook, Tavon Austin and Chris Givens this offseason, and the first pass of the 2013 season went to Lance Kendricks. We were all reminded of how he turned into a pretty good pass-catcher last season.

+ Chris Long and Michael Brockers were quieter than I expected, but Robert Quinn was so good that it didn’t even matter. If teams are going to double-team Long, then Quinn has to win his individual matchups. He certainly did that on Sunday. A rocking chair would have been more effective than Levi Brown at left tackle.

+ Cortland Finnegan had a day to forget. He was late multiple times in coverage, he was flagged for unnecessary roughness midway through the third quarter following a Larry Fitzgerald reception, and he was beaten by Fitz on the touchdown that eventually extended the Cardinals’ lead to 11. That said, the touchdown to Fitzgerald wasn’t all Finnegan’s fault. Just before the snap, Rodney McLeod was trying to get T.J. McDonald into position to cover the slot receiver on the opposite side of the field. At the same time, Finnegan looked like he was trying to tell McLeod to shade more to his side to give him help over the top. In that moment, the ball was snapped and Fitzgerald got a free release off the line, easily beating Finnegan with no safety help over the top. It was a perfect read by Carson Palmer and a poorly executed play by the Rams.

+ It would be nice to see the Rams be more aggressive on the back end of their defense. I realize that Fisher and Tim Walton want to rely heavily on their pass rush, and why wouldn’t they? If they can create pressure using only their front four, that’s a luxury that most teams don’t have. But if more teams are going to exploit the Rams’ soft coverage by getting the ball out quickly, then what’s the point in having such a fierce pass rush? I’m not suggesting that the Rams play man-to-man every series, but there’s room to mix in more exotic coverages, right? Outside of when Quinn made him eat turf, Palmer did an excellent job of finding open receivers in the Rams’ secondary, which often played too far off the ball.

+ This was a great comeback, and every win is vital in the NFL. That said, the Rams can’t continue to hurt themselves with dumb penalties and mental mistakes. At home and against a lesser team like Arizona, you can still win that game. On the road against a pissed-off Atlanta team that just lost to a division rival in the manner it did on Sunday, two turnovers and seven penalties aren’t going to cut it. This has to be a more disciplined football team moving forward.