When a team plays its division rival for the second time in a season, there are always going to be changes.
Some differences, however, are bigger than others. And that’s what the Rams will have to contend with this week as the club takes on the Cardinals.
In Los Angeles’ Week 7 matchup with Arizona, quarterback Carson Palmer suffered a broken arm and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. Backup Drew Stanton started the next two games, but suffered a knee injury.
Enter Blaine Gabbert — the former Jaguars and 49ers quarterback who signed with the Cardinals as a free agent during the offseason. He’s started the last two games for Arizona and has had decent success, completing 61 percent of his passes for 498 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also fumbled three times.
Though Staton is healthy enough to play once again this week, Arizona will stick with Gabbert as its starter. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians told Arizona reporters earlier this week that he’d be “very, very comfortable” heading into 2018 with Gabbert as the starting quarterback.
“The biggest thing has been his poise. His extreme confidence. He knows what he’s doing,” Arians said on a conference call with L.A. media. “He has reasons for why that ball coming out of his hands and the more he gets comfortable with the guys that he’s practiced with.”
“Blaine is a really good quarterback. He does a lot of good things in the pocket, can step up and throw,” Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said. “If he has protection on him and he’s clean, he can make the throws — just like Carson Palmer. He’s been in the league a while though, he’s got a name and he went first round I think too. So, he’s a good QB and we can’t sleep on him.”
“The quarterback’s come in and given them some juice I think,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “Gabbert’s played well for them — kind of opened their offense back up again, gives you some problems.”
Though Robey-Coleman and Phillips just joined the franchise this year, the Rams as a whole have significant experience going against Gabbert. As the 49ers’ starter, Gabbert beat the Rams in the final game of 2015 and the first game of 2016 against the Rams. In those games, Gabbert tossed for a combined 524 yards with a pair of touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 50 yards, showing how he can make play with his feet.
“At the end of the day, you never go top 10 [in the draft] in this league for no reason,” safety Lamarcus Joyner said. “The guy has talent. He’s been in the league for a while. He’s been around. And he’s that guy when teams need someone to pick up the energy, he’s been able to do that. And, like I said, from what I’ve seen, he’s just very talented and he’s a competitor.”
But quarterback isn’t the only position where there’s been changes. While 34-year-old wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is still tearing up the league in his 14th season — he’s No. 9 with 780 yards receiving this year — a young tight end has also emerged as one of Gabbert’s favorite targets.
Ricky Seals-Jones entered this season as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. While he appeared in a few games early in the season, he started to emerge only in the last couple weeks. Seals-Jones caught a pair of touchdowns against Houston, then hauled in another against Jacksonville last week. In all, Seals-Jones has made seven receptions for 126 yards in the last two games.
Arians said the difference for Seals-Jones has mainly been him taking advantage of his opportunity.
“He has worked extremely hard since he’s down here — learned how to block and having been a wide receiver. But he’s learned how to block, he can play tight end,” Arians said. “He just earned that right to get out on that field and I knew Blaine had a great chemistry with him, so we tried to get him in the game plan a little bit and each week it’s gotten more and more.”
Rams wide receiver Josh Reynolds was Seals-Jones’ college teammate, and said the tight end’s size is what makes him stand out.
“He’s a big body, he’s athletic. He definitely can make some plays,” Reynolds said. “He just had to get acclimated to the system and just show them what he can do. Not at all surprised.”
While the Cardinals have continued to integrate running back Adrian Peterson into their offense, the running back is questionable for Sunday after missing all three practices this week with a neck injury. Peterson has rushed for 448 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his six games with Arizona since being acquired from the Saints.
And so even though the Rams defeated the Cardinals 33-0 in London backing Week 7, Los Angeles is expecting to get Arizona’s best on Sunday. And that means L.A. will have to be at its best defensively, too.
“It’s a division rival, and it’s been that way for a while. It usually comes down to only a few points to determine the game and a few plays here and there. And we wouldn’t expect anything different this time,” Ogletree said. “It’s a division game, they know us, we know them and it’s going to come down to who wants it the most.”
“They’re going to give us their all,” Joyner said, “and we have to match their intensity.”