The Matchup: Cardinals 'O' vs. Rams 'D'

The Matchup:  Cardinals 'O' vs. Rams 'D'

Last week, both teams had their noses bloodied by a division foe.  With the NFL's newfound focus on settling races early by scheduling massive amounts of divisional games in the first few weeks of the season, it's kill or be killed.  Neither team can afford to fall into an early hole from which they may never escape.

Wide Receivers:

If this was a big mismatch last week, it's a GIGANTIC mismatch this week.  The St. Louis cornerbacks are all under 6' tall, all under 200 pounds, and feature only one player, 3rd string CB Tye Hill, who was chosen in the first round.  And he was chosen in the first round of this year's draft.  While it's true that the Rams did intercept three passes in Week 1, Cardinals fans know all too well that interception totals racked up against Jake the Snake don't count.

For the most part, their cornerbacks are interchangeable.  Much like Arizona's cornerbacks.  The primary difference here is that the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Bryant Johnson hold a tremendous size, talent, and athletic advantage.  The Rams cornerbacks are small and fast, the Cardinals receivers are big and strong.  And, as Hall of Fame coach Hank Stram was fond of saying, fast guys get tired, big guys don't shrink.  If the Cardinals are able to pound on the Rams' undersized and outmatched defensive backs early in the game with a lot of slants, slip screens, quick hitches, and skinny posts, that will open the secondary up for bigger plays in the second half.

Lost in all the talk of the cornerbacks for St. Louis is the fact that their two safeties, Corey Chavious and Oshiomogo Atogwe, give announcers more fits in the pronunciation of their names than they tend to off-set the rhythm of an NFL offense.  There is a considerable void left in this secondary by the departure of Adam Archuleta.  While it's true that he may have been overrated the past couple of years, he was still the only viable playmaker the Rams had.  Who fills that void?  That remains to be seen.

Hopefully, the Cardinals won't need to find out on Sunday.

Offensive Line:

Leonard Little is a fine player.  Anthony Hargrove is serviceable at best.  La'Roi Glover is surviving on reputation alone and is precisely three days older than dirt.  Jimmy Kennedy is still trying, mostly in vain, to shed the "bust" label that has been applied to him after his underwhelming career statistics after the Rams drafted him 12th overall in 2003.  In Week 1, they looked like the '85 Bears against the Broncos.  In Week 2, they made the 49ers look like the '66 Packers.  While we won't know until game day which version of this unit will show up, we can be certain that they will be playing against the '06 Cardinals.  And their line doesn't exactly conjure up images of the '83 Redskins.

The silver lining is that the 49ers' line is very similar to Arizona's.  They run a number of the same types of runs and pass plays that the Cardinals like to run.  The reason for this is that both teams have vastly deficient athletes along the interior of the offensive line.  Since their guards and centers can't pull or trap, they tend to run mostly dive, gut, and slant plays that require little, if any pulling, stunting, or trapping.  And the 49ers had considerable success running the ball against the Rams last week.

Arizona lives in continual hope that the reason the Broncos were so ineffective running the ball in Week 1 is that St. Louis defensive coordinator Jim Haslett teaches his linemen to penetrate and attack the line of scrimmage.  The Broncos tend to have success against teams with less aggressive defensive lines that are taught to hold the point of attack and allow the linebackers and defensive backs to flow to the ball.  Denver backs are taught to stretch the play, find the hole, cut and explode.  If the Denver linemen are patrolling their zone and the other team's linemen are staying in their gaps, the Denver back only needs to wait for pursuit to come his way, then cut back behind the other Denver blockers that are maintaining their zones away from the play.  If, however, the defensive linemen are taught to stop the run on their way to the quarterback and penetrate, attacking the line of scrimmage, all cutback lanes and zone blocking schemes are thrown out the window.

This is a longwinded way of saying that Arizona will be successful running the ball between the tackles because of the style of defense the Rams play and the style of offense the Cardinals play.

In pass protection, the Rams will not be able to apply consistent pressure without bringing extra defenders on the blitz.  And, the Cardinals linemen are simply not talented enough to protect Warner when St. Louis sends more than they can block.  This is compounded by the fact that Warner has had the tendency to get rattled under pressure the last few years.  End result is that Edgerrin James needs to stay back in pass protection in order to give Warner enough time to find the open receiver or "hot route" if the Rams decide to run a jail break defense.  With the mismatch of Cardinals receivers vs. Rams secondary, Warner should not need as much time as usual.

Running Backs:

Edgerrin James needs to find running room at some point, and this may be the week to do it.  With the ends moving up the field to pursue Warner and the tackles attempting to penetrate in the backfield and disrupt inside running lanes, James should find a lot of space off-guard and, possibly, directly behind center.  Will Witherspoon, St. Louis' big free agent acquisition, played outside linebacker when he was with Carolina and may be miscast as a middle linebacker with the Rams.  If the guards can contain, or at least push the tackles up field, and the tackles can contain or push the ends up field, James can follow Stepanovich up the gut, where the center needs to win the one-on-one battle with Witherspoon.  Once James gets to the second level, he can do some serious damage making the first defender miss or gaining yards after contact (two of his strengths).

If James is able to hit the hole quickly and with authority, he'll have a great deal of success.  He has always excelled at seeing the hole, hitting the hole, and exploding.  If the Rams play the type of defense they've been playing and the Cardinals run the type of plays they've been running, it should be a recipe for success.

Once again, James needs to stay at home in passing situations in order to pick up the extra pass rusher, or to assist any offensive lineman that has found himself outplayed at the point of attack.

Game Plan:

Early in the game, the Cardinals need to run the plays that they like in the running game.  With a serious of slants, dives, and gut plays, they should find open space in the middle of the defense (which happens to be the weak point of both teams).  In addition, they need to resist the urge to send their receivers out on too many intermediate and deep routes.  With the size advantage Bryant, Fitzgerald, and Boldin hold over their adversaries, they should be able to gain adequate separation and see impressive gains with yards after the catch.  The Cardinals need to run a series of slants, skinny posts, and quick screens to their wideouts to make the most of the mismatches present.

There is, however, one wild card: Jim Haslett.  One possible explanation for the Rams' early success on defense is that Haslett has succeeded in maximizing that minimal potential of his charges.  Historically, he has been able to do more with less in the early going than most coordinators.  It could very well be that other teams in the league simply didn't expect him to use his current personnel in his already established scheme.  And, with the element of surprise, the Rams have been extremely successful.

The most important thing to remember when considering a Haslett coached defense is that he's a much better creator and teacher than he is at being a consistent performer.  After taking the NFL by surprise in 2000 with a playoff berth as coach of the Saints, his defenses continually underachieved and came up short when it mattered.  It seems as though, after everyone else in the league catches on to what he's trying to do, the game is up.

Will it be up this Sunday?  That's why they play the games.

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