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Wrangling the Rams: Blueprint for an upset

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The Rams are favored by almost two touchdowns on Sunday. What will have to go right for the Cardinals to pull off the upset?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals
Making Todd Gurley work for his yards is one key to a potential upset for the Cardinals on Sunday.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1 was a rough one for the Redbirds, and it doesn’t get any easier in Week 2 with a trip to L.A. to take on the new power in the NFC West. After what happened last week at State Farm Stadium, it should come as no surprise that the Redbirds are big underdogs against the Rams on Sunday.

I think most Cardinals fans already have this game written off as a loss, but is an upset possible? Well, the Raiders showed it just might be on Monday night. Yes, the final score was ugly, but remember that the Raiders were actually up at the half and that it was a one-score game until about halfway through the 4th quarter.

So if Chucky and the Raiders can hang with the Rams, who’s to say Wilks and the Redbirds can’t? After watching a bit of Raiders/Rams tape (and trying my hardest to forget what I saw of the Cardinals last week), I started to see what the blueprint for an upset in L.A. might look like. Let’s go through the offense, defense, and special teams and see what would need to go right to get this team a monumental divisional win.

Passing Offense

The Raiders obviously had success throwing to the TE (Jared Cook went 9/180), but had almost no success throwing to anyone else. Derek Carr had 18 completions for 103 yards to his backs and receivers—good for a putrid 5.7 YPA. This… does not bode well for the Cardinals. Outside of Larry Fitzgerald, the Redbirds have an even weaker WR corps than the Raiders, and Ricky Seals-Jones is a poor man’s Jared Cook on his best day (and Jared Cook is not a rich man in this metaphor). He can’t be counted on for anything close to the numbers that Cook put up, but I do imagine he’ll be more involved in the game plan than last week.

Carr did have 13 completions to his backs though. While most were of the checkdown variety, there may be some easy yards there for David Johnson if the Cardinals’ O-line has trouble with the Rams’ pass rush (and they will). Speaking of the O-line, dumb penalties and sacks will have to be kept to a bare minimum.

All that said, an upset in the Coliseum likely won’t be powered by the arm of Sam Bradford. The Rams want you to throw so their D-line can pin their ears back and rush the QB and their talented secondary can get their hands on the ball. If Bradford is throwing a bunch on Sunday, I don’t like our chances—either it’ll be because we fell behind multiple scores again or Mike McCoy truly doesn’t know the talent on this roster. The key will be lots of safe throws to Fitz (although most throws to Fitz are safe), a few seam throws to RSJ, and plenty of action in the passing game for DJ. High-percentage passes, rather than going for big plays, and, obviously, no picks is the recipe here.

Key Stat: 30 attempts. If Bradford has many more attempts than this, something will have gone awry.

Rushing Offense

The Raiders RBs had a moderately successful day running the ball on Monday night—20 carries for 85 yards, good for a 4.3 YPC. Not world-beating numbers, but generally effective. But they went away from the run in the second half, getting pass happy even though the game was still close until the final 10 minutes. They attempted only 5 runs in the second half before a garbage-time drive when the outcome had already been decided.

Sound familiar? It’s basically the script the Cardinals followed last week. The team can’t afford to do the same thing this week. Go down a touchdown? Keep running the ball. Two touchdowns? Keep running the ball. Three touchdowns? Keep DJ involved. That’s just what you have to do when your best player is a running back. Now, I’m not saying to pound the ball futilely into Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Co. over and over, but our game plan has to be built around David Johnson. He can’t touch the ball just 14 times again. The only way we win this game is if DJ has a big day—and you know he’s capable of doing it.

Key Stat: 25 touches. If we can get DJ at least this many touches, we’ll have a shot. Closer to 30 would be even better.

Passing Defense

This phase of the game is, to me, the key to the upset. If we can contain Jared Goff (imagine saying that 2 years ago…), we’ll be right there in it. But this is a tough, innovating passing attack to stop, one that uses everything from delayed HB screens and WR bubble screens to designed rollouts and deep bombs off play-action. The Raiders weren’t really able to stop any of it as Goff put up an efficient 74.2 QBR.

Our secondary is much stronger than theirs, however. Our CBs generally held Washington’s WRs in check—but then, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods are much more talented than Washington’s WR corps. Cooks especially gave the Raiders fits—5 receptions for 87 yards and two huge PI penalties (totaling another 87 yards). I expect Patrick Peterson and Bené Benwikere to do their jobs and lock down two of those guys when they throw downfield (and hopefully pick off at least one pass), while the third figures to have a big day against likely weak link Jamar Taylor. As long as Chandler Jones and the pass rush can get home on some of the long-developing pass plays they run, we can live with Taylor getting beat once or twice.

But what worries me is stopping their horizontal passing game, especially when they throw to their RBs. Washington’s less-talented RBs absolutely gouged us last week, and if we’re going to pull off the upset, we’re going to need to contain Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown in the passing game. We really need guys like Tre Boston and Deone Bucannon (or, potentially, Haason Reddick) to step up this week. Hopefully Wilks and Holcomb coached these guys up in practice this week.

Key Stat: 0 pass interference penalties. If they beat us through the air once or twice, fine, but to win, we can’t give away yards.

Rushing Defense

This phase is fairly simple. Gurley is going to get his. But they key is making him work for his yards. That means setting the edge and not letting him break for big gains off tackle, as team speed on defense has been an issue since preseason. We need our OLBs and CBs (especially Peterson) to funnel everything back to our DTs and Josh Bynes (a bright spot last week) in the middle of the field, forcing Gurley to grind out yards up the middle. And, needless to say, wrapping up when you get your arms on him is a must—no missed tackles.

Key Stat: 4.0 YPC. If we can hold the Rams under this number, the defense will have done its job. We were actually close last week against Washington, but Chris Thompson really hurt us on his 5 carries. Hopefully Brown doesn’t do the same this week in a similar role.

Special Teams

If we manage to pull off the upset, special teams will have played a huge role. Teams were a strength last week, but the Rams are even stronger in this phase than we are on our best day with the leg strength and accuracy of Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker, as well as dangerous return man Pharoh Cooper (update: Cooper was put on the IR). We’ll have to hope we can at least play to a draw in this phase, with Phil Dawson hitting all his kicks, Andy Lee flipping the field, and Christian Kirk breaking another big return—because you know their Rams counterparts are going to do just that. We’ll more than likely need one more big play than them—a blocked kick, a muffed punt recovery, a return into plus territory. Thankfully, this phase looks much improved from years past for the Redbirds.

Key Stat: 0 missed FGs. If we have a chance to come away with points, we can’t leave empty-handed.

Final Thoughts

The odds are long, but that doesn’t mean we have to automatically write this game off as a loss. I mean, no one saw the Bucs beating the Saints last week, right? But a lot of things will have to go our way. Here’s the TL;DR version:

  • Bradford needs to play smart, efficient football. He doesn’t need to put up big numbers for us to pull off this upset.
  • We do need DJ to put up big numbers though—something like 150+ total yards on 25+ touches. The offensive gameplan has to go through him.
  • Our CBs need to contain their downfield passing game without committing any big penalties, while hoping our LBs/safeties can limit the damage in the short passing game. Make them dink and dunk.
  • Todd Gurley is going to get his yards, but we need to make him work for them. Keeping him at or under 4.0 YPC is key.
  • Finally, we need to play to a draw on special teams—and have one big play go our way.

If we’re talking about a massive Redbirds upset on Monday morning, it’ll be because all or most of these things happened. But if we’re talking about Bradford’s inefficiency, a porous run D, and penalties again, there’s no doubt this team will be heading home 0-2 and in need of some serious soul searching.