3TFO: Cardinals @ Rams, Week 1
This season-opening matchup pits the “other” two teams in the NFC West against each other in a division where both the Seahawks and 49ers look primed for a strong playoff push, and have understandably been receiving most of the attention. Meanwhile, the Rams and Cardinals are both looking to make a name for themselves in the NFL’s toughest division.
The last time they met in St. Louis, a national television audience watched the Rams’ defensive line run roughshod over the Cardinals’ pass-protectors, turning quarterback Kevin Kolb into a human tackling dummy. The Cardinals were 4-0 at the time, but this was the beginning of the end, as the wheels fell off the bus and they were on their way to a 1-11 finish. At the same time, the Rams established themselves as a legitimate force in the division, ending the season with an impressive record of 4-1-1 in the West.
Tavon Austin vs. Tyrann Mathieu
This game features a much-anticipated matchup of heralded rookies Tavon Austin and Tyrann Mathieu. The Rams traded up in the first round of the draft this year to nab Austin, hoping to give quarterback Sam Bradford a real weapon at wide receiver. Austin was known for his ability to turn a short pass into a big play at West Virginia, and it will be largely up to the Cardinals’ third-round defensive back Mathieu to keep him contained. Physically very similar (Austin is 5-foot-9, while Mathieu is 5-foot-8), these two appear destined for some intense head-to-head battles over the coming years, playing for division rivals.
Austin ran 91.9% of his pass routes from the slot (Wide Receiver Slot Performance), one of the highest in the league this preseason, and is expected to be a fixture there once the real games start. There’s only so much you can take from limited preseason snaps, but his Yards Per Route Run was a mediocre 1.92 (on 37 routes), which the Rams would certainly expect to increase in the regular season. Mathieu, meanwhile, was the talk of training camp in Arizona for his playmaking ability and instincts, and generally impressed this preseason (+2.9). He took the majority of his snaps as Arizona’s No. 1 slot cornerback, and also impressed blitzing with one sack and two hurries in just seven pass rushes. He did struggle against Dallas in Week 2 of the preseason, allowing receptions on all four targets to Dallas slot receiver Dwayne Harris, including 20 yards-after-catch. It will be critical to limit the YAC for Austin, since that is where he did so much damage in college.
Levi Brown and Eric Winston vs. Chris Long and Robert Quinn
Neither left tackle Levi Brown (IR) nor right tackle Eric Winston (KC) were in St. Louis the last time Arizona visited, when the Cardinals’ line allowed an astounding nine sacks, three hits, and 22 hurries. Regardless, the specter of that domination by the Rams’ front seven hangs over this matchup. Defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, the major contributors in that game (+3.6 and +8.0 respectively) will be looking for a repeat of that performance. Brown managed a less-than-awe-inspiring effort in his last preseason game, allowing a sack, a holding penalty, and three hurries to Dwight Freeney in just 25 pass blocks. He was usually left on an island, so look for Bruce Arians to give him some help from the backs and tight ends during the game. As a 16-game starter for the Chiefs last year, Winston managed a respectable Pass Blocking Efficiency of 94.8, so he should be an upgrade over Bobby Massie on the right side, who, despite his strong second half to the season, was still an overwhelmed rookie in Week 5 last year.
One key to slowing down the Rams’ pass rush on Sunday may be to allow Long and Quinn to rush upfield and take themselves out of the play with some delayed handoffs and draw plays. For all their ability to harass QBs, both Ram defensive ends struggled in Run Stop Percentage (4.3% and 3.9%, respectively), indicating that they may often sell-out to get to the QB, leaving holes for Arizona running backs to exploit.
Jared Cook vs. Cardinals ILBs
After Austin, the Rams’ other noteworthy acquisition to provide receiving help for Bradford was the signing of former Titans TE Jared Cook. He got $35 million this spring to act as both a safety outlet and a weapon who can stretch the field (eighth in Tight End Deep Passing target percentage in 2012). Cook managed 44 receptions on 68 targets for 523 yards and four TDs last year in Tennessee, and most of his damage was done between the numbers, registering 29 catches (on 48 targets) for 377 yards and four TDs in the middle of the field. One matchup the Rams may want to exploit is when inside linebacker Jasper Brinkley is in coverage, as he appears to be the real weakness in the middle for the Cardinals in pass defense. He managed a rather poor -13.4 grade in coverage last year with Minnesota, and doesn’t appear to have the athleticism to run in space with TEs. Karlos Dansby, the other inside ‘backer for Arizona in their 3-4 defense, graded at +0.6 in coverage for Miami in 2012, an area that has usually been a strength for him over the years. The Rams’ offense gets a bonus this week by not having to face Daryl Washington (suspended), who is the most athletic of the Cardinal linebackers, and normally Arizona’s top defender in the middle of the field.
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