Oddsmakers have the Los Angeles Rams favored by 13.5 points in their home opener Sunday afternoon. Los Angeles looked like two different teams Monday night at the Oakland Coliseum stumbling through a first half that left them trailing the Oakland Raiders at halftime by a field goal before turning in a truly dominant performance second half en route to a 33-13 win. They really should beat the Arizona Cardinals, but this is the NFL, and you never know. Just to put things in perspective, the last time the Rams were favored by this much was Super Bowl XXXVI. We all know how that turned out.
Rams Offense Vs. Cardinals Defense
The Cardinals are transitioning to a 4-3 base defense under new head coach Steve Wilks after featuring a 3-4 alignment for the last few years. Wilks was previously the Carolina Panthers Defensive Coordinator so that the Rams may pull out some old game tape of his days at Carolina in preparation for this game.
While he doesn't have a Luke Kuechly with the Cardinals, Arizona features at least one star of similar magnitude in cornerback Patrick Peterson, who may consider the best in the best in the game at his position. If the dictionary had an entry for the phrase ''lockdown corner" it could have a picture of Peterson next to it. I guess that Peterson will spend much time covering Rams wideout Brandin Cooks, who had 87 yards Monday night and also drew a couple of significant pass interference penalties.
The problem for the Cardinals is that their secondary doesn't have any other players of Peterson's stature to shut down a deep and talented Rams receiving group. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp may not be quite as fast as Cooks, but they are capable of big games, and I don't know that Arizona has an answer for them. The Rams also featured several jet sweeps on Monday night, featuring both Kupp and Woods as runners. Another aspect of the game Arizona will have to be ready for is defending the run with non-traditional ball carriers.
Arizona Does have a big-time pass rusher in defensive end Chandler Jones, who set a team record with 17 sacks last season and named to the AP All-Pro team. The Rams O-line, which was stellar on Monday night, needs to contain Jones. However, as with Peterson in the secondary, the Cardinals don't have another Chandler Jones up front. Unlike Peterson, the Rams can and probably will double team Jones if needed.
Of course, any discussion of the Rams offense centers on running back Todd Gurley, arguably the best in the game. He brings back memories of Marshall Faulk regarding being a dual-threat runner and receiver. Yeah, he's THAT good. I don't see how the Arizona linebackers contain him, but coach Wilks made his name as a defensive coordinator, so we'll see what he comes up with in preparation.
Bottom line, the Rams offense has averaged 30 points a game under Sean McVay, and I don't know that Arizona will be able to hold them under that average. They may be doing well if they can keep the Rams to only 30 points.
Rams Defense Vs. Cardinals Offense
Sam "Injured Reserve" Bradford will face the team that drafted him for the first time, and it may not be a happy reunion.
Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh publicly said this week that he is looking forward to hitting Bradford hard and often. Given Suh's reputation, it's not an idle threat. Rams defensive-lineman Aaron Donald, meanwhile, is saying he's not happy with his performance against the Raiders. He's probably also not pleased with the $20,000 fine the league accessed him with for a hit on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. I can't blame him for that one, not that he can't afford it these days. An angry Aaron Donald could be a nightmare for the Cardinals. Not many other defensive players--if there are even any at all--can take over a game as the AD can.
The Cardinals are expected to be without starting tackle Andre Smith, which is not good news for Bradford. Arizona may try to go "ground and pound" to protect their quarterback and keep the game close. Cardinal's running back David Johnson is a real offensive weapon and one the Rams need to keep under control. It looks like Rams inside linebacker Mark Barron will be out again this week, but fellow ILB Cory Littleton had a big night against Oakland and is looking like a rising star. Some reports are saying safety Marqui Christian may see the field as a linebacker on passing downs in Barron's absence. Since Barron is himself is a converted safety, that would make sense.
One of the more exciting matchups in this game features Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald--a sure future Hall of Famer-- against Rams corners Aquib Talib and Marcus Peters. If the Cardinals are going to pull the upset, they probably need a couple of big catches at least from Fitzgerald.
Considering the big night, the Raiders got from tight end Jared Cook on Monday night; you also wonder whether the Cardinals might feature tight end Ricky Seals-Jones. If so he and Rams Safety John Johnson could have an epic battle.
The Cardinals have outstanding talent in Fitzgerald and Johnson, and Seals-Jones can be dangerous as well. I'm just not sure their offensive line is capable of doing the job up front.
Rams placekicker Greg Zuerlein was the NFC special teams player of the week, and deservedly so. Need we mention--again--that Johnny Hekker is the best punter on the planet? If there is a concern for the Rams on special teams, it's the injury to kick returner Pharoh Cooper, who was placed on injured reserve last year. Cooper was named to the pro-bowl last season, and replacing those type of players I never easy. The Rams did sign JoJo Natson, who played well in the preseason, to replace Cooper. The only other real concern for the Rams special teams is a recent tendency towards committing "illegal blocking in the back" penalties on kick returns. Even so, the Rams probably boast the best special teams in the NFL. We haven't seen enough of Arizona's special teams under the new coaching regime to form too many opinions on them. They do have the longtime veteran, Phil Dawson, doing the placekicking. He's no Zuerlin, but he isn't bad, and he's used to the pressure that comes with the job.
Since this is only Arizona's second game under coach Wilks and his staff, I'll reserve judgment in that regard. However, what I will say is that there may not be a better coaching staff in the NFL at preparing a team and making in-game adjustments than that of the Rams.
We saw that again on Monday night, as the Rams made changes at halftime that entirely changed the game against the Raiders. It's hard to say how much of an advantage this might be because we don't know how excellent the Cardinals staff is. However, I feel pretty comfortable in checking this box for the Rams.
These kinds of games always make me a little nervous, because this is the NFL and because games are played on the field and not on paper. Upsets happen, and I have to think the Cardinals are a better team than they looked like last week against the Washington Redskins. Terry Bradshaw Was talking up the Cardinals before the season opener last week, and some folks think this team could surprise many people. They have outstanding talents in Fitzgerald, Peterson, Johnson, and Jones, and Bradford can be effective when healthy.
Still, it's hard not to predict a Rams victory.