The Cardinals (7-5) return home from a disappointing performance in Philadelphia, where their playoff hopes took a major hit in a 24-21 loss to the Eagles. Some of the bad habits, which had been eliminated in their previous four game winning streak, returned, namely turnovers and a complete inability to cover the opposing tight ends. Their chances for postseason play remain slim as they face a division foe in the Rams, who have beaten them three straight times now under Jeff Fisher. The NFC West as a whole has given the Cardinals fits, as they come in with eight consecutive division losses, dating back to last year.
The Rams (5-7) face their second consecutive road division game, after dropping last Sunday’s contest in San Francisco 23-13. St. Louis won the season opener at home against Arizona, after overcoming an 11 point fourth quarter deficit, 27-24, led by the now injured Sam Bradford. The Rams, who many picked to be a ‘surprise’ playoff team this year, never quite lived up to those expectations, and Bradford’s season-ending injury in Week 7 didn’t help his, or the team’s, development.
It seems like all season the Cardinals games have been decided by which version of Carson Palmer shows up. During their recent four game winning streak, he has been the quarterback with decisive throws, who managed to find the open receiver, and not force balls. Last week in Philly the ‘bad’ Palmer reappeared for much of the game, with his now familiar underthrows on deep balls (resulting in two interceptions) which looked like wounded ducks. Coming into the season, stretching the field with long throws was supposed to be staple of the Cardinals offense, with Bruce Arians affinity for it in Indianapolis last year, and with the acquisition of a strong-armed QB in Palmer during the offseason. As it turned out, the deep pass has been very unfriendly for Palmer. In fact, only Jake Locker has a worse accuracy percentage than Palmer on Deep Passes, who is just 16-of-59 with five touchdowns and seven interceptions throwing the ball 20 or more yards downfield. When examining his numbers more closely, he struggles most with deep throws outside the numbers, where he is a combined 8-for-43, with a grade of -9.2. By contrast, on passes 10-19 yards downfield, he is a combined +19.7.
It may be even tougher for him this week, as he showed up on the injury report for his elbow, which was hurt on a strip-sack by Trent Cole on the Cardinals’ first possession last Sunday, and affected his throws after that. If it’s still bothering him this Sunday (and as of Thursday he was not participating fully in practice) it will make his job even more difficult. However, if running back Andre Ellington can return from a knee injury and fellow back Rashard Mendenhall can continue his recent resurgence, that would take a lot of pressure off Palmer (and the shaky offensive line) to make plays and risk more turnovers.
Robert Quinn was considered a raw talent as a speed pass rusher coming out of North Carolina, when he was the Rams first-round pick. Raw athleticism doesn’t always translate to success at the NFL level, but in his third year, Quinn has really turned a corner (pun intended) as a defensive end, and is having a J.J. Watt kind of year, at least as a pass rusher. He has an ungodly pass rush grade of +43.7, with 13 sacks, 18 hits and 39 hurries so far this season. Undoubtedly he will be thrilled to see the Cardinals again, although he won’t be going up against his first victim in left tackle Levi Brown. It was Quinn’s abuse of Brown that helped get him traded from the Cardinals a few weeks into the season. This week’s matchup with replacement Bradley Sowell will be just as appetizing, as Sowell has our worst Pass Blocking Efficiency of any left tackle in the league (he’s allowed 42 total quarterback pressures in just 314 pass blocking snaps). With the rest of the Rams pass rush struggling some this year (-12.3 combined for the rest of the defense), it has been Quinn’s disruptiveness that has helped spearhead the Rams defense. As a bonus, his play in the run game hasn’t been shabby at all, with 21 stops and just two missed tackles all year.
Zac Stacy vs. Dan Williams and Alameda Ta’amu
With all the attention given to the importance of pass rushing for defensive lineman, a stout run-stopping tackle can be under-appreciated. Very quietly, Arizona has gotten strong seasons from not one but both nose tackles in their 3-4 scheme. Dan Williams, the Cardinals’ first round pick in 2010, battled weight issues and injuries early in his career, but is finally becoming the run-stuffer they envisioned in his fourth year in the league. He has graded out with his best year at +6.8, and is third in Nose Tackle Run Stop Percentage at 13.3, and is a big reason the Cardinals are second in the league against the run. Alameda Ta’amu, claimed off the waiver wire from Pittsburgh this preseason, has provided solid depth at the position, with a +4.0 in 192 snaps this year, and just had his best game of the season in Philadelphia.
The pair will be charged with stopping Zac Stacy this week, who has provided some spark to a Rams offense that has been struggling to deal with the loss of Sam Bradford. He now has 699 yards on 160 carries, with 22 missed tackles, although none in the last three weeks. Stacy has been the surprise replacement for Steven Jackson, when it was expected that now-benched Daryl Richardson would take over the starting role. With quarterback Kellen Clemens sporting an NFL QB rating of 77.3, and just a 51.7 completion percentage, the Rams will need to establish some sort of running game against the Cardinals to keep the defense honest, and the Rams competitive.
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