TEMPE — After winning three games outside of the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals get their first taste of their division this season in the Los Angeles Rams.
It’ll be a battle of the unbeatens, with Arizona and Los Angeles among the five teams left without a loss this season.
But unlike the Cardinals’ first three opponents, the Rams present a much tougher test, especially with quarterback Matthew Stafford looking more than comfortable in his new digs out west and Los Angeles holding an 8-0 advantage over Arizona since 2017.
The Rams made their claim for the top spot in the NFC on Sunday thanks to a 34-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Stafford had his best day as a Ram yet, completing 71.1% (27-of-38) of his throws for 343 yards and four touchdowns. The outing was highlighted by a 75-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Desean Jackson in the third quarter.
Of the signal callers who have played in three games so far this season, Stafford is fifth in passing yards with 942 and second behind only Buccaneers QB Tom Brady (10) in touchdowns with nine.
Matthew Stafford has been effective operating out of empty formations, leading the NFL in completions (25), yards (345) and pass EPA (+21.2).
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 27, 2021
It’s arguably Stafford’s best start to a season over his 13-year NFL career. In only one other season (2011) has Stafford tossed nine touchdowns, three of which were more than 66 yards, over the first three games.
Fifth-year wideout Cooper Kupp has benefitted the most from Stafford’s arrival, pacing the NFL in both receiving yards (367) and touchdowns (5).
“He’s more of slot presence. He’s not really a vertical guy but he’s so crafty,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Thursday. “He plays with tremendous smarts I would say. He understands zone, he understands man and he finds the soft spots. He’s a tough out because he’s so smart.
“And the quarterback right now, it’s like they’ve been together for four years. It’s gonna be a tough out, but having a plan to, obviously, take him away from time to time is gonna be important.”
But where the Rams excel in through the air, they lack on the ground.
While Los Angeles is seventh in the NFL in passing yards per game with 304.3 and second in touchdowns, the Rams’ rushing attack is 27th in yards per game (83.7) and tied for 31th in yards per carry (3.3).
Injuries have played a big part in the trend. Before the season started, projected starting running back Cam Akers went down with a torn Achilles, leaving the Rams to go out and trade for Sony Michel to pair with Darrell Henderson Jr.
Henderson’s injury in Week 2 only added to the running game issues for Los Angeles as he was ruled out for Sunday’s contest.
Michel carried the ball 20 times for 67 yards. No other Ram had more than three carries. Despite missing a game, Henderson still leads the the team with 123 yards and two scores on 29 carries and is expected to play in Week 4.
Luckily for Los Angeles, its stout defense led by defensive lineman Aaron Donald makes up for whatever the rushing attack lacks.
The Rams defense is 10th in the league in points per game (20.7) and 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (92.7).
Donald has two sacks, five QB hits, 13 tackles, a pass deflection and a forced fumble on his 2021 resume. His ability as a pass rusher is unquestioned.
“I’ve never seen anything like it on tape,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Wednesday. “The guys I’ve talked to around the league that I respect, they’ve said the same thing.
“There’s no way to stop him. You’ve just got to try to do things to neutralize him as best you can.”
There’s one area of the defense that has been exploited this season, however, with the Rams sitting 25th in passing yards allowed per game with 281.3.
While Los Angeles held Brady to just one touchdown Sunday, the quarterback still gashed the Rams to the tune of 432 yards through the air. He also ran in a score.
That’s not to say the talent isn’t there, with Jalen Ramsey heading the cornerbacks room.
Ramsey is fourth on the team in tackles (20) to go along with an interception and two passes defensed so far this season.
And under Rams first-year defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Ramsey has only gotten better.
“To watch the physicality he’s playing with up to this point, he’s probably the defensive MVP when you see how he’s affected games,” Kingsbury said Wednesday.
“He’s been dominant on the perimeter whether he’s asked to cover, or go and tackle, blow up screens. He’s been all over the place.”
This NFC West matchup has the makings of a shootout written all over it, but only if the Cardinals can start faster than in weeks past.