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Another Superb Win for the NFC West

Los Angeles Rams v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Background: TAMPA, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 23: Jordan Fuller #32 of the Los Angeles Rams celebrates with his teammates after his interception during the fourth quarter in the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on November 23, 2020 in Tampa, Florida.

If you have respect for the NFC West (which boasts 6 of the last 12 NFC Champions—-at least 1 from each of the 4 teams), then you likely were very impressed with the effort the Rams put forth in their 27-24 win over the Bucs last night.

I am so happy that the Arizona Cardinals have been emerging as a bona fide contender in what is, without question, the most competitive division of the NFL.

Even though it is natural to want to see division rivals lose, in my opinion, it’s ok to give credit to our staunchest rivals when they prevail the way the Rams did last night.

Ironically, to some degree, it was a manifestation of disrespect within the division back in 2014-2015 that prompted the Rams to fire Jeff Fisher in favoring of hiring Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in the NFL. From the lips of Bruce Arians:

“There’s an 11-3 team and they’re always 8-8. You figure it out.”

The irony is that ever since BA purportedly “retired” and Sean McVay was hired, the Rams have flipped the script—- the best the Cardinals have been since then is 8-8 (BA’s last year after going 7-8-1 the year before). BA’s Bucs were 7-9 last year and are 7-4 this year with a roster chock-full of Pro Bowlers and the G.O.A.T. at QB in Tom Brady.

The Rams team that Bruce Arians’ Bucs lost to last night ain’t no 8-8 team. In fact, ever since Sean McVay took over for Jeff Fisher the Rams have gone 40-18, 2-2 in the playoffs with an NFC Championship in 2018.

And how’s this for a coaching stat: Sean McVay’s Rams are 32-0 when they have the lead at halftime.

Or this one—-QB Jared Goff has more wins (40) over the past 3 12 years than any NFL QB not named Tom Brady (43).

To be perfectly honest, I have always believed that Jared Goff is a good QB, but not an upper echelon talent. Maybe that has always been wishful thinking. The numbers suggest otherwise.

Moreover, i thought the Rams made a huge mistake by moving on from DC Wade Phillips.

Be honest—-how many of you had ever heard of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley before this year?

Staley, 37, landed the Rams’ DC job having about as much NFL coaching experience as James Bettcher—-as in 3 years as an outside LB coach under Vic Fangio with the Bears and Broncos. Unlike Bettcher, Staley had some experience as a defensive coordinator in college, the last of which was at John Carroll University in 2016.

Could it be that Sean McVay just so happened to find the defensive version of himself in Brandon Staley?

Who would have ever thought the Rams’ defense could be this good, this fast? And fast is the apt word—-he’s got that defense reacting to the ball and playing fast, fast, fast and tough, tough, tough.

This is thing about NFL defenses today—-being quick to react and super fast to the ball is of paramount importance—-which is precisely why some of us have been exhorting Vance Joseph to take the slow out of his defense and amp it up with his speediest and best tacklers and cover guys.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that only one veteran (5 years or more in NFL) with over 275 snaps on Vance Joseph’s defense has a PFF grade above 60—-Corey Peters (62.6)—-well, Brandon Staley has all 5 of his veteran starters playing and grading well: DT Aaron Donald (92.7), CB Jalen Ramsey (72.4), DT Michael Brockers (65.7), OLB Leonard Floyd (62.9) and CB Troy Hill (60.4)—-plus look at what he’s done with the other 3 starters in his young secondary: CB Darious Williams (80.9), FS John Johnson (79.3) and SS Taylor Rupp (67.6).

Where Staley’s defense is weakest is at ILB where they miss Cory Littleton: Troy Reader (54.6), Micah Kiser (39.6) and Kenny Young (35.1). When the time comes, that’s the unit that the Cardinals will especially need to try to exploit.

This morning I had an exchange of tweets from one of my favorite Cardinals’ fans/pundits, Peter Owusu-Ansah who asked me if the Cardinals “have a shot to split with the Rams this season”:

That’s right—-it’s hard not to try to think ahead to the Rams. I was hoping that Vance Joseph would start working on the defensive game plan versus the Rams back during the bye week—-and maybe (hopefully) he did.

But, the Cardinals need to put all of their focus on the task at hand, which is their game versus the Patriots in Foxborough MA this Sunday at 1 PM EDT.

Question:

Were you rooting for the Texans to beat the Patriots last Sunday?

I have always struggled with this question—-do you want to face a team that is coming off a win or a loss?

I have started to wonder whether it’s better to face a team that is coming off of a win, than a loss. Two weeks ago I was very happy that the Seahawks lost to the Rams, particularly with a short week to get ready for the Cardinals. But, as we saw, losses have a way of motivating, re-focusing and galvanizing proud teams.

Which is why I am very impressed with how Pete Carroll and Ken Norton, Jr. game planned for the Cardinals. They are the first team that has shown some success in zoning and stringing out Kyler Murray’s designed runs. The Dolphins also used the Seahawks’ zone scheme to do the same—-as will Bill Belichick.

Yesterday on Burns and Gambo, they asked Kliff Kingsbury if he stopped calling designed runs for Kyler Murray versus the Seahawks in light of Murray’s sore shoulder. While Coach said yes, they wanted to keep Kyler out of harm’s way as much as possible, he also indicated how well the Seahawks were defending the running lanes against Kyler.

Therefore, one of Kliff Kingsbury’s and Kyler Murray’s main challenge this week is finding creative ways of exploiting the Seahawks-esque zones that were effective in the two Cardinals’ losses since the bye week.

But on the defensive of the ball, maybe the Cardinals can put to good use what the Seahawks’ defense was able to do to turn its fortunes around. Pete Carroll and Ken Norton Jr. had their defense playing faster and more alertly than we had seen from them all year.

This is my hope for the Cardinals’ defense, starting with this Sunday’s game at Gillette. it would be a fresh wind of hope to see a revitalized Cardinals’ defense that plays faster and more alertly than what we have been seeing for several weeks now.