I believe this is a crucial game for the Rams, both concerning securing a first-round bye in the playoffs and re-establishing some momentum after two awful games. Is this team broken? Our gut response is still no, but if they lose to the Arizona Cardinals, we may have to reconsider that notion. There are causes for concern at this point for Rams fans, and this game may tell us a lot.
Rams Offense vs. Cardinals Defense
The Rams offense is the unit that has carried the team most of the season, and it is also where things have gone south the last couple of games. Jared Goff has turned into a turnover machine, and the offensive line has gone from elite to pretty bad almost overnight. Those two things are related, of course.
The line needs to block better, and the Rams need to re-discover the running game. The last one could be a challenge if Todd Gurley doesn't play, and at last report he was listed as a game-time decision' although he has been saying he expects to play The Rams did pick up some insurance with the signing of former Denver Bronco C.J. Anderson, a former 1,000 runner who named to the pro bowl in 2015. Anderson is not Gurley (nobody is), but he is a tough, proven runner who can kill you between the tackles, and he is a big upgrade over any of the other reserve backs on the Rams roster. The question, of course, is how Anderson will be ready for action after having been signed only a few days before the game. He does have one skill that's very much in demand for the Rams right now, and that is his ability in pass protection.
The other option is John Kelly, the rookie out of the University of Tennessee, and it just seems like coach McVay does not have a whole lot of confidence in the rookie running back. The Rams other back, Justin Davis, has been out with a shoulder injury and seems unlikely to see extended action on Sunday if he even plays at all.
The ideal situation would probably be for the Rams to jump out to a big lead, let Gurley sit, and let Anderson and Kelly carry the load.
As bad as its been for the Cardinals this season, they do have some talent on defense. Defensive end Chandler Jones has 12 sacks, and the way the Rams O-line has been playing lately, that is a massive concern. Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth will likely see most of the action against Jones, and that could be a key matchup in this game. Whitworth made the All-pro team last year, but there are those who wonder if his age (at 37) may be starting to catch up with him. We may find out on Sunday. Of course, when we discuss the Arizona defense, we have to talk about cornerback Patrick Peterson, often considered the best cover corner in the game. Peterson missed practice with an illness this week, but it would be a surprise if he does not play.
Rams Defense vs. Cardinals Offense
The Rams defense has been playing a little better lately (the Eagles' 30 point outburst was keyed by Ram turnovers as much as anything), even though the Chicago Bears contained Aaron Donald and to a lesser degree the Eagles.
Donald could be back in a big way in this game. The Cardinals offensive line is not good, giving up an average of three sacks per game. There are those who are calling rookie quarterback Josh Rosen a bust. He has thrown ten touchdowns as opposed to 14 interceptions, and his 66.3 quarterback rating is not very good at all. Running back David Johnson, considered an elite player is coming into this season, has not lived up to that billing, topping 100 yards rushing only once this season and averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Of course, the Rams rush defense has not been good either, so something will have to give if the Cardinals go smash mouth. The Cardinals do have a future Hall of Fame receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and a promising rookie in Christian Kirk, but neither has put up high numbers this year. The Cardinals lost Kirk to a season-ending injury breaking his foot, and perhaps newly former Rams receiver Pharoh Cooper will see action.
The Rams need to get someone besides AD putting some pressure on the quarterback and making some plays up front. That means Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and a few other folks need to step up. Frankly, aside from Donald, Cory Littleton, and lately, John Johnson this unit has underperformed for the majority of the season. That needs to change against the Cardinals, who are dead last in total offense in the NFL.
One notable special teamer who will not be with the Rams this week is the former kick returner, Cooper. Released and signed by--yes great guess--the Cardinals. Return man JoJo Natson has mostly been pretty good for the Rams, but his inexplicable fumble on a return late in the game against the Eagles last week was a real backbreaker. It was especially hard to understand because it appeared he simply dropped the ball for no apparent reason. The fact the Rams kept him over Cooper tells us the team still has confidence in him. Otherwise, Johnny Hekker remains the best punter on the planet, and placekicker Greg Zuerlein is a threat from 60 yards plus. The Rams special teams have been a little less dominant than usual recently, but we still like their chances to bounce back.
The one variable that concerns us a bit here is the signing of Pharoh Cooper by Arizona. Not so much because of what we may think he might do on the field as the fact that he undoubtedly spilled the beans about the Rams offense, where he was a role player at wide receiver. The other concern is what the absence of Todd Gurley might mean for the Rams if indeed he does not play or is limited. Having said all of this, the Rams really should win this game. It is not a must win, since they are in the playoffs, however, it is a more important game then anyone would have guessed a couple of weeks ago.