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Saturday before football Sunday: What to watch for in Cardinals-Rams

Who will come out on top in the NFC West battle of the unbeaten?

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend, the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 31-19 to improve their record to 3-0 in the battle between two No. 1 overall picks in Kyler Murray and Trevor Lawrence. Fast forward to this upcoming Sunday, Murray and the Cardinals are set to face off against another former No. 1 overall pick in Los Angeles Rams’ quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The Rams took care of the reigning Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 34-24 in Week 3 to extend their win streak to three to open up their 2021 season.

Both teams seek a 4-0 start. Can the Cardinals beat the Rams for the first time since 2016? Or will Sean McVay extend his perfect record against the Cardinals to 9-0?

Here are five Arizona Cardinals things to watch for in Week 4:

Arizona Cardinals v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

1. Bring the pass rush! Pressure Pressure Pressure

The Rams’ offensive line has done a good job protecting Matthew Stafford with only three sacks allowed on the season. The Cardinals’ defensive front seven was quiet in the pass rush category in Week 2 against the Vikings but followed that up with 25 pressures against the Jaguars. J.J. Watt led the way with seven pressures and Chandler Jones had four in the Week 3 win. For any defense to be successful, they must establish their pass rush. Make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable.

In 2020, Angelo Blackson led the Cardinals with 19 pressures on the season. J.J. Watt has already created 12 pressures through three games and was bringing the pass rush in all three of the Cardinals’ defensive interceptions this season. Remember that Byron Murphy dropped interception in Week one against the Titans? Yeah J.J. Watt was all over Ryan Tannehill on that play. Him along with Chandler Jones have been fantastic for the Cardinals this season.

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

2. Neutralizing Aaron Donald the best the Cardinals can

The scariest thing about Aaron Donald is he can play any defensive line position and be elite. Donald is dominant off the edge and is a monster interior pass rusher. In my opinion, he is the best player in the NFL as one of the most feared players in the league to play against. One thing to note is that Donald has 12 career sacks against the Cardinals. Expect the Rams to take advantage of his versatility and target the right side of the Cardinals’ offensive line that is a little banged up with tackle Kelvin Beachum and Justin Murray injured.

2020 third-round pick Josh Jones had a great game against the Jacksonville Jaguars as the starting right tackle in place of the injured Beachum. He allowed only one pressure on 39 pass block snaps in the win while keeping Kyler Murray well protected. Jones will need to be at his best along with the rest of the offensive line on Sunday. Cardinals receivers will get open. All Kyler Murray needs is time and so far this season, his offensive line has provided him with that. The addition of center Rodney Hudson has helped tremendously and his impact should continue to be felt in the battle of the unbeaten with no pressures allowed this season.

Arizona Cardinals v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

3. Byron Murphy and the Cardinals secondary vs. Cooper Kupp and the Rams’ receivers

Both Cardinals’ Byron Murphy and Rams’ Cooper Kupp are playing their best football of their careers through three weeks of the 2021 regular season. Murphy is tied for second in the NFL in interceptions (2) and pass deflections (5). Kupp leads the NFL in receptions (25), receiving yards (367), and receiving touchdowns (5).

The Cardinals always had the most difficult time against the Rams, especially covering their receiver group that features Kupp, Robert Woods, and now the speedy veteran DeSean Jackson. The Rams are second in the NFL in passing yards per attempt (10) and passer rating (129.8) thanks to Matthew Stafford. Respectively on both sides, the Cardinals’ cornerbacks and Rams’ receivers will have their biggest challenge yet on Sunday. Again, the key for the Cardinals is to establish their pass rush and the secondary will be just fine. This game could be a potential shootout so get your popcorn ready.

Arizona Cardinals v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

4. Kyler Murray’s history of struggles against the Rams but his best game against them to come on Sunday

In four career games against the Rams, here is how his stats add up:

Completions-Attempts: 74-of-126

Passing Yards: 748

Passing Touchdowns-Interceptions: 5-4

Passer Rating: 75.76

Rushing Yards: 46 (13 carries)

Win-loss record vs Rams: 0-4

And why do I believe his best game against the Rams will happen this Sunday?

His performances against this divisional rival continues to improve with every game.

Game 1 (7-34 loss): 19-of-34, 163 passing yards, 1 Interception (four carries, 28 rushing yards, TD)

Game 2 (24-31 loss): 26-of-42, 325 passing yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions (two carries, zero rushing yards)

Game 3 (28-38 loss): 21-of-39, 173 passing yards, three touchdowns, one interception (five carries, 15 rushing yards)

Game 4 (7-18 loss): 8-of-11, 87 passing yards, zero touchdowns and interceptions (two carries, three yards) Was out for a good chunk of the game

Too often throughout all these four losses, the Cardinals relied on bubble screens that simply were not effective. They did not have the right personnel or talent to effectively execute their offensive gameplan to its fullest potential. With a excellent run-after-the-catch receiver in Rondale Moore, Christian Kirk leading the NFL in slot receiving yards (239) in his natural position, and A.J. Green being able to stretch the field as the Z receiver opposite DeAndre Hopkins, this is the Cardinals’ best offense they have had since 2015. 6’4’’ A.J. Green vs 5’9’’ Darious Williams and the Rams’ 25th ranked pass defense? Yes please.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Jacksonville Jaguars Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

5. Limiting Turnovers

Kyler Murray has thrown an interception in each of the last three games in the opening drive coming out of halftime in the third quarter. The Cardinals cannot afford to make it four, especially playing in a hostile environment as the visitors at SoFi Stadium. They are unlike the Cardinals’ previous three opponents.

Sean McVay and his Rams just defeated the Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are the best team in the NFL but the Cardinals could make a case of their own as being the best with this win. One turnover in this matchup can completely change the outcome of this Cardinals-Rams game.

The Cardinals are 4.5-point underdogs to the Rams and that should not come as a surprise to anyone. Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald are respectively the best cornerback and pass rusher in the NFL. Robert Woods has been targeted 71 times in his seven matchups against the Cardinals since 2017 and accumulated 589 receiving yards on 51 catches throughout that time. Matthew Stafford has a career 3-4-1 record against the Cardinals but have won three of the last four matchups when he was a member of the Detroit Lions. Despite all of the Rams’ past successes against the Cardinals, this is not the same team that they have faced previously. The Cardinals have major upgrades on all three units that makes them a very dangerous team.