Keys to the Game Revisited: Arizona

Posted Dec 10, 2013

The Key: Jared Cook vs. Arizona Secondary

Cook made a major splash in his first game as a St. Louis Ram, catching seven passes for 141 yards in the Rams’ season opener against Arizona. Since, he has seen his production lag behind that auspicious start, though the Cardinals have continued to struggle against tight ends in the passing game.

Despite boasting the league’s seventh-ranked defense, Arizona has seen three tight ends post games of seven or more receptions and more than 100 yards receiving. San Francisco’s Vernon Davis posted the biggest day of all against Arizona, with nine catches for 180 yards in Week 6. Cook has begun to regain his footing in the passing game in recent weeks while establishing a rapport with QB Kellen Clemens. Cook has scored in two of his last four games, including a four-reception, 80-yard game two weeks ago against Chicago.

The Answer: Though Cook did lead the Rams with 49 yards on three receptions, his performance did not mirror his Week 1 showing, and he was held to just a single catch for seven yards in the second half. Cook’s numbers were due in part to a diverse passing attack on Sunday, as QB Kellen Clemens completed passes to nine different receivers. Despite a promising start that saw Clemens complete 11 of 15 attempts for 141 yards during the first half, the Rams finished with just 157 net yards through the air.

The Key: Zac Stacy vs. Arizona Front Seven

In another key matchup of a potent Rams offensive player against the Arizona defensive unit, this one could represent a true test of the Rams’ ability to run the football against an upper-echelon run defense. Stacy, who has represented arguably the most important member of the Rams’ offense since taking over as the team’s lead back in the fifth game of the season, has already run for more yards than any other St. Louis Rams rookie with 696 entering Sunday. Conversely, Arizona has allowed only one back to rush for 100 yards this season. San Francisco’s Frank Gore carried 25 times for 101 yards in Week 6. Stacy’s ability to produce on first and second down could prove crucial against a defense that has an affinity for bringing excessive pressure from a variety of positions on third down. Arizona has received a sack from 11 different players on the season.

“You look at first, second down, there’s a lot of pressure,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Third down it jumps off the roof. There’s a bunch of pressure that they’re doing, some real exotic stuff, multiple stuff, but they’re doing a great job. I think (Defensive Coordinator) Todd Bowles has been doing it for a long time at a very high level, and those guys are having a lot of fun. It’s kind of a veteran group with a few young players in there, but a very, very good group.”

The Answer: Sunday’s matchup proved to be tough sledding for Stacy and the rest of the Rams’ running game. Aside from a 56-yard end around from rookie WR Tavon Austin, the Rams were held to 44 yards on 18 carries. Arizona became the first team to hold Stacy to fewer than 50 yards rushing in nine career starts. The Cardinals entered the game ranked seventh in overall defense, and ended it ranked fifth after limiting the Rams to 257 total yards.

“That’s a talented front seven that we were going against,” Clemens said. “They’ve certainly played well all season against the run. We weren’t able to lean on it in the second half because we got down quite as much as we would have liked. We’ll stick with it. It’s still the strength of our offense. We’ll come back against New Orleans, and hopefully, get some good runs.”

The Key: Getting to Carson Palmer

In the Rams’ season-opening, 27-24 win over Arizona, the Rams staged a fourth-quarter rally that would not have been possible without the efforts of the Rams’ pass-rushing front four.

DE Robert Quinn kick-started a breakout season with three sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. DE William Hayes sealed the win with a sack to end the Cardinals’ final offensive possession. Since that win, the Rams’ pass rush has continued to be among the team’s most consistent units. The Cardinals employ a pass-oriented offense that feature a pair of big-play threats in receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, but has also left QB Carson Palmer susceptible. Palmer has been sacked 35 times entering Sunday, more than all but four NFL quarterbacks.

The Answer: In an offensive scheme that looked significantly different from the one used in Week 1 in St. Louis, the Cardinals employed a short-passing attack that kept the Rams’ potent pass rush at bay for the majority of the afternoon. Rookie LB Alec Ogletree supplied the Rams’ only sack of the afternoon, despite the Cardinals dropping back for 33 pass attempts on the day. For the year, the Rams are averaging a sack for every 8.5 drop-backs.

“(The) ball is out and they were blocking their way out,” Head Coach Jeff Fisher said. We’re going to do a better job in the back seven when the ball is coming out that fast.”