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LAR 38 ARI 28: Rams in Rhythm

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Lack of Preparation:

I made the statement to Kenneth Arthur, SB Nation’s beat writer/podcaster for the Rams, that if we see Jared Goff breaking contain on his bootlegs where he finds his comfort zone, then “the Cardinals have no chance in this game.”

This is why i have been pounding the drum since the bye week for Vance Jospeh to do an early install with his defense on how to contain Goff and make him try to beat them from the pocket.

Adding to the frustration of seeing no such preparation from Joseph in trying to take away the Rams’ bread and butter plays—-is watching ILB Jordan Hicks get routinely hammered while standing in cement on running plays (see the Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson TDs)—-is watching Patrick Peterson get handled by Cooper Kupp and then not even come up to tackle wide open RBs while in a soft zone—-Hicks and Peterson are captains whom Joseph refuses to take off the field no matter what—-plus it was very difficult watching a simple pick play free up TE Tyler Higbee for an easy lob TD with the Cardinals’ looking unprepared as to how to defend it.

Deja Vu All Over Again—-last year—-the first time Vance Joseph prepped for the Rams, Goff was coming off a mere 212 yard, 0 TD, 2 interception performance in a loss to the Ravens where his QBR was 62.0.—-but Goff came to Arizona and threw for 424 yards, 3 TDs, and 0 interceptions for a QBR of 120.7. Cashing in on the same bread and butter plays he ran yesterday.

This year, Goff was coming off a 198 yard, 0 TD, 2 int. performance at home versus the 49ers with a woeful QBR of 52.9—-and he cams to Arizona yesterday and passed for 351 yards, 1 TD, 0 ints. for a QBR of 104.9.—-and rarely got hit all game long, save for a face mask roughing the passer penalty and a run into Dennis Gardeck’s knee for a sack.

In the season finale last year vs. Jospeh and the Cardinals at LA, Goff passed for 319 yards, 3 TDs, 0 ints., for a QBR of 107.5. Same bread and butter plays.

Come Week 17 this year, if Vance Joseph does not come up with an answer (that was blueprinted for him on tape by the Dolphins and 49ers and the Patriots in the Super Bowl 2 years ago—-which thus far Joseph has routinely ignored) as to how to defend the Rams’ bread and butter plays, then the Cardinals have to move on from him as DC. it is absolutely imperative that the Cardinals have a DC who can match wits with Sean McVay. James Bettcher, Steve Wilks, Al Holcomb and Vance Joseph have individually and collectively provided no answers to McVay’s offense, all of them on the bad end of blowout losses where the Rams have averaged close to 500 yards and 35 points per game.

Offensive Wall

Philosophically, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray find themselves at a crossroads with a potential playoff berth on the line.

The main reason why Kingsbury is drawing the ire of national and local media pundits is the notion to that he was hired as a passing game savant—-and after 28 games his offense has morphed into a run heavy game slog that is delivered at a far slower than expected tempo which in recent weeks has been figured out by 3 defensive coaches with Super Bowl experience (Pete Carroll, Brian Flores and Bill Belichick) and 1 DC rookie (Brandon Staley) who took over for another Super Bowl experienced DC in Wade Phillips. Staley, amazingly with only 3 years of NFL experience as a LB coach under Vic Fangio, has to be in consideration for defensive coordinator of the year in the NFC. Of course, it certainly helps to be able to build a defense around three studs in DT Aaron Donald, CB Jalen Ramsey and S John Johnson.

The dubious optics for Kingsbury right now are analogous to someone hiring a portrait painter with a palette of oils, and having a sculptor show up instead with a mound of clay.

If one looks back to the days when Steve Keim was helping Kingsbury hire an offensive staff of NFL veterans—-the suggestion that Keim had for Kingsbury was to modify his college Air Raid with some NFL style principles, particualrly with regard to running the football. After 3 games of a pass-first offense last year, OL coach Sean Kugler and his OL pleaded with Kingsbury to focus more on the running game. This helped to give the Cardinals’ offense more balance and helped to take some of the pressure off of rookie QB Kyler Murray.

But—-as this balanced approach to play calling has evolved, the offense has become mundanely predictable—-the running plays are a steady diet of read option dives, which by now are being zoned effectively by astute, well-prepared DCs.

With defenses doing all they can to deter Kyler Murray’ from running the ball, what Kingsbury has learned is that the rushing offense without Murray’s contributions is strictly pedestrian. The OL is not particularly adept at opening holes—-they stand up on the snap (which eliminates the power in their legs) and their top-heavy run blocking techniques are creating more of a wall than open alleys.

Meanwhile, Kenyan Drake, the RB that Kingsbury likes to give the majority of the snaps to, is not ideally suited to be a power RB. Drake is running hard, but on so many occasions he, like the offense itself, (as described yesterday by Kyler Murray) is “hitting a wall.”

Ray of Hope

The very encouraging news is that in the second half, Kingsbury and Murray upped the tempo and started making the passing game a priority. Despite two ugly mistakes by Kyler Murray where once again he is proving that whirling backwards from the pocket while under pressure is a potential recipe for disaster (the sack strip fumble) and throwing the ball 1-2 seconds late on an out pass to Andy Isabella, who gets out of breaks quicker than any other WR (not named DeAndre Hopkins) is not going to work—-but despite those two mistakes—-Murray and the passing offense took a positive step forward with Murray throwing a number of dimes on frozen ropes—-none niftier than the 4th and 12 laser to KeeSean Johnson (who looks very good in the slot—-with him finally being tried there!) and the precise tight-window TD pass to Hopkins. Plus, it was encouraging to see TE Dan Arnold have his best game of the season in a 2 TD effort.

These scores versus a Rams defense that has given up a paltry sum of second half TDs throughout the entire season—-is a good reason to recalibrate the priorities of the offense from this point forward.

One of best ways, imo, to learn from losses—-is to try to take a page out of the winning team’s book and use that as motivation going forward.

This week—-the Cardinals saw not only QB Jared Goff get into a smooth rhythm, they saw how he enabled his WRs Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Gerald Everett, Van Jefferson and Tyler Higbee get in rhythm—-each of whom recorded 10, 8, 6, 4, 4 receptions respectively. That’s 32 of the team’s 37 receptions, folks.

Getting receivers in a rhythm requires giving them repeated chances and targets.

And get this—-while the Cardinals were trying to cover the Rams top receivers, Goff was able to connect with RBs Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers on chunk yard plays of 30, 19 and 22 yards respectively. Those three passing plays (that, alas, remind us of how bizarrely negligent Vance Joseph’s defense is in covering RBs)—-which amounted to 71 yards were more yards than DeAndre Hopkins had in the game (52), or Dan Arnold who led the Cards this week with 61 yards (30.5 ave. and 2 TDs.).

The run--first philosophy has to change—-and what surprised me was how Kliff Kingsbury mismanaged Hopkins in this game—-Hopkins had Jslen Ramsey, one of the best CBs in the NFL, covering him, which is why Hopkins should have been running a steady diet of rub and mesh crossers in order to make Ramsey’s job far more difficult. Put Hopkins in motion a rub him off another receiver and/or have him run misdirection routes. K2 can even line Hopkins up in the backfield every now and then, or run him like the Rams do with Woods by having him run behind the formation off the snap so his man has to fight through traffic to catch up to him. For crying out loud—-get creative with Hopkins and all the receivers.

The TD pass to Hopkins was a rub route.

What bodes well is that the Cardinals’ passing game picked up in that second half—-and—-that they scored to end the second half—-something the Cardinals have been allowing the opponents to do on a regular basis—-which perhaps slightly atoned for Zane Gonzalez’s demoralizing miss to end the first half—-just as demoralizing in some ways as the failed 4th and goal to end the first half versus the Patriots (who just so happen not to suck, by the way).

Sure, the game was out of reach when Murray connected with Dan Arnold for the team’s 4th TD—-but in a symbolic sense—-this could mean the end of the end of half woes.

Kicking Issues

The Rams only had to punt one time in the game, and boy oh boy did the Cardinals cash in when Gunner Charles Washington and Dennis Gardeck combined on a fumble inducing tackle where Trent Sherfield pounced on the ball. Great to have Washington and Sherfield back this week. Those dudes are ballers.

Last week Kliff Kingsbury said he would have to get STC Kevin Rodgers to help straighten out Zane Gonzalez. Clearly, Rodgers was unable to coach Gonzalez out of his yips on pressure kicks.

Rodgers, since being hired as STs coordinator three years ago, has had one kicker who has never missed a kick—-his name is Matt McCrane—-watch his 55 yard and 56 yard FGs in Cardinal red, in the first two plays of this video:

Rodgers used to coach at Kansas St., so he knows Matt McCrane well and Rodgers was the main reason why McCrane chose to sign with the Cardinals.

Even though Matt McCrane’s FGs for the Cardinals were in pre-season games—-those are huge pressure kicks for an undrafted rookie trying to beat out a veteran like Phil Dawson. But this is where technique is of critical importance—-because good technique is what holds up under pressure, eschpeially from long distance.

If you watched the whole video, you saw Matt McCrane make two game winning kicks, both of which earned him a game ball with the Raiders and Steelers respectively.

Matt McCrane has more upside than Mike Nugent. Best scenario, he could be the short and long term answer the Cardinals have been looking for at such a key position. Please, Steve Keim, claim McCrane off of the Browns’ practice squad.

The other thing is—-one has to be a little concerned that Andy Lee has hit two poor punts in successive weeks. If he makes it three—-then perhaps a call to Ryan Winslow is warranted.

McVay’s Prevailing Thoughts About Dominating the Cardinals (an educated guess)

if we were able to start Sean McVay to a lie detector—-

Q: What are you honestly feeling about the Cardinals’ defense every time you play them?

SMV: Haha, I’d like to thank them for letting us savor our bread and butter and giving us easy escapes from 3rds and long.

Q: What are you honestly thinking every time Kyler Murray hands the ball off?

SMV: Haha, a huge sigh of relief.

Can the Cardinals Regroup and Re-Find a Rhythm and Groove?

Yes, take the page out of the Rams’ book and show up ready to play fast and furiously at MetLife versus the surging Giants (and another HC from the Belichick tree in Joe Judge).