It’s Rams Week—or, as it has been known for the past four years, Losing Week. As all Cardinals fans must know by now, we have not beaten the Rams since they hired Sean McVay back in 2017. They’ve outscored us 251(!) to 91 in that span, or about a 31-11 ass-kicking every game, including two shutouts.
Things have been a bit closer since Kliff and Kyler took over here in the desert, but not by much—the average loss has *only* been about 30-17. Hey, small progress!
Here’s the thing, though—most of those games have come against Jared Goff, who’s about as mediocre as they come at QB. But he’s been exiled to Detroit and replaced by Matthew Stafford, who sure looks like the league MVP at this (early) point for a 3-0 Rams team that is a true Super Bowl contender.
But this is a new year and the Cardinals are also 3-0 with Kyler playing his way into the MVP conversation. If we’re going to beat the Rams, this Cardinals team with an impressive offense and stout defense looks like it could do it.
So: How, exactly, are we supposed to beat this team that has been running roughshod over us for years and are favored by 4.5 points at home on Sunday? Let’s take a look at the unit matchups (offense vs. defense) and find out.
Cardinals Offense vs. Rams Defense
The Redbirds boast the #2 offense in the league by yardage (in the top-10 in both rushing and passing), and are tied for the #1 scoring offense (34.3 PPG) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers… who the Rams just squashed. This unit really seems to be clicking in Year 3 of the Kliff and Kyler show with the second-highest yards per play in the league (6.8), although we haven’t exactly faced the toughest slate of defenses (TEN, MIN, JAX). If there’s a weakness or two here, it’s Kyler’s concerning propensity for INTs (4, which is behind only struggling youngsters Zach Wilson, Trevor Lawrence, and Joe Burrow) and performance on 3rd down, where we’re just 11/31 (35.5%, #23 in the league).
The Rams heralded defense lags at #20 in the league in yardage, but is #10 in points against, which makes sense when you realize they’ve been ahead most of the time in their games. The yardage splits confirm this, with the Rams D at #25 against the pass but #11 against the rush. To put it another way, they’ve faced the third-most pass attempts but the sixth-fewest rush attempts. But only 2 of the 131 pass attempts they’ve faced have gone for a TD, compared to 3 INTs (good for #8 in QB rating against). So this bend-not-break unit actually hides a stingy, opportunistic pass defense. Not good news for Kyler and Co. That said, their rush D has allowed 4.3 YPC and 4 TDs on the ground, so perhaps going more Ground Raid than Air Raid would be a good idea. Finally, the Rams have struggled a bit on 3rd down, with teams converting at a 45.7% clip, but they button up on 4th down, allowing just 1/7 conversions. Go figure. Those stats could easily come into play on Sunday.
Edge: Although the Cardinals offense looks like it’s taking a leap to elite status this season, you still have to give the edge to the Rams here. They’ve consistently stymied us in recent years no matter who is under center, and we have yet to prove we can score against them. I could easily see a couple of Kyler picks on Sunday.
Cardinals Defense vs. Rams Offense
Vance Joseph’s defense sits just outside the top-10 in yardage and scoring, ranking #11 in both. The yardage splits are of interest. Our pass defense is #8 in the league, including #10 in QB rating against and a tie for #4 in sacks. But our run defense is one of the worst in the league so far, ranking at #29… despite bottling up Derrick Henry in Week 1. (Both Minnesota and Jacksonville racked up 150+ yards on the ground against us.) Overall, this is a solid unit that’s played well against some decent offenses… although nothing like the Rams’.
On paper, our defensive strengths and weaknesses match up well against this Rams offense. The Rams have the #6 passing offense on the arm of Stafford and his instant chemistry with Cooper Kupp, but their running attack is all the way down at #27. That’ll happen when you lose a your top two RBs. But this is still the #3 offense in yards per play (6.7) and scoring (31.7 PPG). They also limit turnovers (just two on the season). I’m sure McVay would like to get more out of his running game, but this isn’t an offense built around 1,200-yard seasons from Todd Gurley anymore. This is Stafford’s show, and they have the whole league watching.
Edge: Again, although our defense is playing well, you have to give the edge to the Rams again not only because of recent history (McVay just has our number) but because of how Stafford has completely reshaped this unit. McVay finally has a QB who can fully execute his offense, and the league—especially the Cardinals—need to watch out.
I wanted to mention two other points of interest quickly. The first is penalties. Surprisingly, the Cardinals are actually middle of the pack (#16) in penalties after 3 games with 20 flags, and they haven’t been too damaging, as we’re only #25 in penalty yards (157). At the risk of stating the obvious: if the Cardinals have any chance of pulling off the upset, we need to limit penalties. The only thing is… the Rams aren’t going to beat themselves. They have committed just 7(!) penalties on the season for just 55 yards, both tops in the league. This is just a disciplined, well-coached team.
The other point is time of possession. There’s a definite disparity here, with the Cardinals ranking #6 in the league (32:42) and the Rams ranking #25 (27.48). These numbers are a function of a few things. For one, the Cardinals run the ball better, and two, the Rams score so damn quickly. But, and again I’m stating the obvious, keeping the ball out of Stafford’s hands as much as possible is a smart idea. (Albeit one that hasn’t worked for any of the Rams’ opponents yet.)
After looking over these stats/matchups, here’s the picture I’m seeing: These are two of the best offenses in the league, and both defenses are better against the pass than the run. The Rams are the more polished, disciplined team, but the Cardinals are improving in that aspect. I do see the Rams as the better overall team, but not by much. The 4.5-point spread implies about a 1.5-point advantage for the Rams on a neutral field, which sounds about right.
So: Can the Cardinals finally end their 8-game losing streak at the hands of Sean McVay and the Rams? Sure they *can*. This is the best version of the Kliff and Kyler show that we’ve seen, and Vance Joseph is doing yeoman’s work with the defense. I’m fully ready to take back much of my past criticism of Kliff and Vance if this team is a true contender.
But to be a true contender, this team needs to beat the Rams. So: *Will* the Cardinals beat the Rams on the road on Sunday?
I’ll once more state the obvious: It depends on how they play. DUH. But what I mean is it depends on, I think, how our offense attacks the Rams defense. If we show up in Los Angeles and try to turn the game into a track meet, airing it out and hoping Kyler can outduel Stafford, I think we lose. Potentially hard. Bruce Arians and Tom Brady—only the defending champs—just tried that last weekend and lost by double digits. That’s not, I think, how you beat this team.
But the Cardinals have always had a strong run game under Kliff, kind of ironic for one of the early proponents of the Air Raid. From the numbers/matchups I’m seeing, the way we win this game is on the ground. That limits the potential for back-breaking turnovers and keeps the ball out of Stafford’s hands. Of course we’ll take our shots downfield—we’d be stupid not to—but that shouldn’t be options 1A and 1B.
Instead, I hope we see liberal doses of Chase Edmonds and James Conner pounding the rock, and a season-high rushing total from Kyler, which is just 31 yards. If he can get to 50 or so and Edmonds/Conner can combine for 100—or 150+ total—I like our chances. If the run game gets shut down or we abandon it, I think we come home with our 9th-straight loss to the Rams.
I hope we “Ram It” down their throats all afternoon and end that ignominious streak. It’s time to make a statement, Cardinals.