Key Playoff Matchups and Scenarios: Rams Vs Cardinals Part III
Key Playoff Matchups and Scenarios: Rams Vs Cardinals Part III
Kyler Murray vs. Eric Weddle
In great evils, great means. How desperate? Jordan Fuller had ankle surgery and Taylor Rapp is on concussion protocol. The two have been in the field for a combined total of 2,143 out of 2,326 possible snaps… The remaining safeties have played a combined total of 532 snaps. So adding a player who has 12,748 snaps over 13 seasons under his belt makes a lot of sense. That’s the advantage. The downside is Eric Weddle is 37 years old and has not played professional football for more than two years. The downside doesn’t end there. The Rams have had two defensive coordinators since he was last on the team, one of whom completely revamped the defensive scheme.
It remains to be seen how much playing time Weddle will actually see against the Cardinals. But no matter how you slice it, this position group could be a huge liability against Kyler Murray. Murray is a constant threat to throw deep passes. He leads the league in PFF class throwing the ball 20 yards or more. He has the second most passing yards when throwing those passes. He is behind only Matthew Stafford by 147 yards, but Murray played two games less than Stafford. Not only that, but he’s thrown just three interceptions on deep balls compared to Staffords’ seven. Almost a third of Murray’s production comes from those passes. He’s also first in the league in shot-per-rate. PFF and he leads in that category by a mile. It is 1.7% better than Joe Terrier. The difference between first and second place is the same as between second and twelfth place.
This group of securities will be responsible for limiting these big games. Of course, this defense is designed to ideally prevent those plays by playing two safeties deep in the backend. In their Week 14 win, the Rams were able to deny Murray’s explosive passes. He went four of 11, which gave a completion percentage of 36.4. Well below his 49.3% season average when throwing over 20 yards. This brand also leads the league. But this result was achieved with Rapp and Fuller. Now Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess will likely be the defensive backstop with Weddle working situationally.
What Weddle will bring to the group is the experience of playing inside the box. That could become vitally important if the Cardinals hum their run game like they did in their Week 4 win over the Rams. Neither Scott nor Burgess spent much time on run defense.
Weddle has made a name for itself in part by being able to play cover and mess up the running game with physical play. Of course, the big question is how will a 37-year-old who’s been on the shelf since early 2020 keep up with, say, Kyler Murray? Will he have the lateral speed to attack Murray? Tackle experience goes a long way, but if you can’t get past the guy, you can’t tackle him. And that’s just one question. Can Weddle still maintain coverage against deep threat receivers? Despite the lack DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and AJ Green caught 24 combined through passes for 789 yards and four touchdowns.
There are more questions than answers about Rams safeties heading into Monday night.
Sony Michel vs. Chase Edmonds
The running game is a double-edged sword for the Rams. On the one hand, the Rams have struggled to make theirs work for them consistently. On the other, teams that have the ability to stick on the run have made the Rams pay on defense.
In Week 4, the Cardinals were one of those teams. In that game, they rushed for 216 yards. 120 of those yards were on 12 carried by Chase Edmonds. Edmonds was not the Cardinal’s main full-back. Arizona gave in to James Conner much more. One of the main reasons is that Edmonds missed five games through injury, including the team’s second meeting in Week 14. Prior to this game, they are both listed on the report of injury.
Sony Michel took the reins of the Rams’ running game starting in Week 13. The change of Darrel Henderson coincided with the end of the Rams’ three-game losing streak and the start of a five-game winning streak. In those losing efforts, Sean McVay showed no confidence in his running game, rushing an average of just 17 times per game. Since then, the Rams have averaged over 26 attempts per game.
How each team uses their running game will tell a lot as the game progresses. The Cardinals should look to relieve Kyler Murray by relying on Edmonds and Conner (if healthy) the same way the 49ers relied on their rushers. San Francisco used high plays to unbalance the Rams’ defense and they also ran on first downs to set up easy first downs. It’s similar to how Arizona won in Game 1.
For the Rams, the running game just has to be effective. It doesn’t need to win the game, but it needs to be used to set up the throwing game. With Cam Akers back in the lineup, they’ll be more likely to do so with a full-back changing pace from Michel.
Both defenses are good against the run, but in the final weeks of the season the Rams have been really solid against the run. But both are coming off of bad weeks from a race stoppage standpoint. The Rams were ranked 24th and the Cardinals 30th against the EPA run according to rbsdm.com in their Week 18 losses. The rebounding defense will have the upper hand in the Wild Card game.
Matthew Stafford vs. Jalen Thompson
Matthew Stafford leads the league with 17 interceptions. That happens to be one interception per game, but Stafford has gone six games without an interception. In all of those games, the Rams won. In most of those games, the Rams won the game by a comfortable margin. One of those games was the last Rams/Cardinals game, in which the Rams had a comfortable lead for much of the game.
None of this is rocket science. No turnover leads to a higher chance of winning a game. But, Stafford likes to air it out. This is a high risk/high reward proposition. That’s what the Rams signed up for when they went for a quarterback who has an arm that can make big throws and throws that thread the needle. But there is a big caveat. This is the big “but” that hovers like the sword of Damocles over Stafford’s entire career. The gunslinger mentality will fail in the playoffs.
The math around that risk/reward proposition changes in the playoffs. Giving up a game in October is one thing, the Super Bowl tournament is one thing and that’s it. There’s a lot less forgiveness when it comes to the playoffs. A badly timed interception could send a team home. Staffords’ sample size in the playoffs is small. He led Detroit to the playoffs three times. He threw two picks in 2012, one in 2015, zero in 2017, and lost all three games.
One of the Cardinal’s safeties who has emerged as a threat to hook an errant pass is Jalen Thompson. According to Sports Information Solutions, Thompson had 41 saved points, third most among safeties. He’s solid in his coverage allowing for an 89.3 passer rating when targeted and has three assists. He is also a strong tackler in the passing game and against the run. He is second among all safeties in PFF’s Stop metric which tracks tackles that constitute a “miss” for the offense. It is one stop behind the first place. Thompson is truly having a standout season after joining the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent from Washington State.
Stafford struggled to play against some of the league’s top safeties. He threw spikes at Jimmie Neighborhood and Kevin Byard, and in total, he threw eight of his 17 interceptions safe.
Some of these picks are from later long-distance “mini-marys” trying to save a drive. These were considered “arm kicks”. This makes sense if your bettor had a problem that prevented them from making his work. But in fact, the Rams have one of the best punters in the league. The decision to go for this type of response is daunting, especially when you have the best receiver in the game. Cooper Kupp has lots of catches and lots of yards, but also led the league in yards after catches and first downs. Arm punting, on the other hand, has proven to be detrimental to the Rams’ chances of victory and Thompson will likely draw his fourth pick if Stafford raises one at some point in the game.