GLENDALE, Ariz. –
1. Quarterback Quandary
THE KEY: Since Kurt Warner departed, Arizona has found itself on something of a perpetual search for a long-term replacement at quarterback.
Kevin Kolb was supposed to be that player but he’s dealt with a litany of injuries since he got to the desert. He was 28-of-50 for 289 yards with a fumble in the first meeting but it doesn’t appear he’ll be ready to go this week.
Likewise, John Skelton, who replaced Kolb, was benched last week against Atlanta after just seven passes and also doesn’t seem likely to get the start.
Instead, all indications are that rookie Ryan Lindley will make his first start. Lindley struggled against the Falcons last week, going nine-of-20 for 64 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Interestingly, the Cardinals did not just have Lindley managing the game, giving him multiple opportunities to throw the deep ball.
Regardless of which quarterback the Rams see – and it could well be more than one – Rams coach Jeff Fisher said his group must be prepared for anything and everything.
“Well, it’s their offense,” Fisher said. “Regardless of who plays they’re going to execute the Cardinal offense. It’s not like you’re preparing against a drop back versus a wildcat quarterback. All three are going to execute their offense, so we have to execute well on defense.”
THE ANSWER: As expected, Lindley made the start and after a hot first half, he came back to the pack in the second as the Rams harassed him into four interceptions, including two returns for touchdowns by cornerback
2. Wells’ Return
THE KEY: Making his long-awaited return after seven weeks on the injured reserve/designated for return list is Arizona running back Chris “Beanie” Wells.
Wells was the Cardinals leading rusher in 2011 and posted a franchise rushing record for a game with 228 yards. Arizona is a team that was built with the run game in mind but without Wells the offense has struggled to gain traction.
In Wells’ place, Arizona used a steady diet of LaRod Stephens-Howling, who gave them something of a different look with his speed and game breaking ability.
But in getting Wells back in the mix, Arizona can return to the type of physical running team it would like to be.
Nobody knows what Wells brings to the table better than Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who played with Wells at Ohio State.
“Chris is the kind of guy that if you let him get rolling, he’s one of the best,” Laurinaitis said. “I wonder how his health is. He’s coming off the I.R. thing, is he fully healthy, is he still hurting a little bit? We’ll find out. With Chris, he’s got a dangerous stiff arm; he’s more explosive than people give him credit for. He’s a powerful guy; he can break through tackles so he can fall forward. We have to try to cut that out early in the game and not let them feel like they can continue to come back to the run throughout the four quarters.”
THE ANSWER: Wells was effective early but the Rams shut down the run game in the second half and it became less of an option as the Rams built on their lead. Wells finished with 48 yards on 17 carries and the Cardinals ran for just 74 yards on 23 attempts, an average of 3.2 yards per attempt.
3. Finding Fitz, Part II
THE KEY: One of the most respected and well-liked players in the league, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald has long been a thorn in the side of the Rams. Fitzgerald has 13 touchdowns in 17 games against the Rams in his career.
Those touchdowns are the most Fitzgerald has against any opponent for his career. For his career, he has 99 catches for 1,282 yards and three 100-yard receiving days against the Rams.
Fitzgerald hasn’t been his dominant self as often this season largely because of the aforementioned inconsistent quarterback situation. But he did post eight grabs for 92 yards in the teams’ first meeting and remains the top priority in planning for the Cardinals offense.
“He’s an elite receiver, one of the best in the business, a future Hall of Famer,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan said. “They have so many different weapons but Fitzgerald is a guy you have always got to be aware of where he is at all times. He’s a playmaker and a difference maker for that team. We’ve got our hands full.”
As is always the case when playing the Cardinals, finding Fitzgerald and keeping his production to a minimum is paramount to success.
THE ANSWER: Much like Wells, Fitzgerald had some big moments early but didn’t do much after. He finished with 31 yards on three catches but was targeted 12 times.
4. Turnover Turnaround
THE KEY: The Rams haven’t forced a turnover since the closing moments of the team’s win against Arizona in the first meeting way back on Oct. 4.
That’s a string of five games without a takeaway that makes the Rams just one of three teams to go that long without taking it away since 1950. If the Rams don’t get a turnover against Arizona, the streak of six weeks would put them alone for the longest drought in league history.
The missing turnovers has not been for a lack of effort as the Rams have emphasized it in practice for the better part of the past month and even come up with more forced fumbles.
The ball, however, has not bounced their way and they have just one fumble recovery all season.
“We are in a little bit of a drought,” Laurinaitis said. “We have recognized it, we are harping on it. You have to keep the belief that the balls you do get out will start bouncing your way a bit here and there. I’m not a big guy that says ‘Gosh, we are not getting the bounces.’ You have got to create your own bounces, too so you have just got to keep stripping that ball out.”
With a rookie quarterback in Lindley and a defense focused on getting some turnovers, perhaps this is the week they break through. If it is, it would go a long way toward a Rams win.
THE ANSWER: The turnover drought came to a merciful end and in glorious fashion for the Rams. They had four interceptions with Jenkins returning two for scores and the Rams has just one giveaway, as they were plus-3 in the turnover department.
5. Turning Up The Heat
THE KEY: When the Rams and Cardinals met the first time, the Rams jumped out to an early lead, effectively shut down Arizona’s run game and then ratcheted up a pass rush that saw them get to Kolb for nine sacks with ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn wreaking havoc off the edge.
The nine sacks was one of the best performances by a Rams defense in franchise history and made life almost impossible for the Cardinals and coach Ken Whisenhunt.
“We got down in the game,” Whisenhunt said. “We were forced to throw it in the second half a little bit and that put us behind the eight ball, especially with their ends and the way they rush and trying to deal with the noise and having some young tackles.”
Since, Arizona’s offensive line has made some moderate strides while also mixing and matching in an effort to improve across the board. That resulted in rookie Nate Potter replacing D’Anthony Batiste at left tackle lest week.
If the Rams can slow Wells and jump to an early lead, they could have a chance to once again spend their afternoon in Arizona’s backfield.
THE ANSWER: Arizona concocted a game plan that had Lindley getting rid of the ball quick, limiting the Rams pass rush but the Rams ratcheted it up in the second half both with blitzes and better pressure from the front. Lindley was only sacked twice but the pressure the Rams created in the second half made a big difference.