The Cardinals and Rams both have nothing to play for, but both teams are relatively healthy (with the sole — possibly major — exception being Kyler Murray), and we should see these teams come out firing in an effort to win this game.
The Matchup ::
- Arizona ranks 28th in DVOA on defense (16th against the run; 28th against the pass), and ranks 31st in opponent drive success rate, 28th in opponent yards per play, 30th in opponent points per drive, and 30th in opponent plays per game; Arizona ranks third in pace of play, and 31st in time of possession
- The Rams rank fourth in pace of play and 28th in time of possession; between the Rams’ average time of possession and the Cardinals’ time of possession, there are almost four minutes missing from a 60-minute game — enough for roughly eight plays added compared to what is typically available for these teams
- When these teams met in Week 13, the Cardinals saw 63 plays (barely above their average of 62.6 per game), while the Rams saw 79 plays (nearly 14 above their average of 65.1 per game)
- The Dolphins are the only team that has allowed more yards per game than Arizona, while only four teams have allowed more points per game
- Since scoring six points against Baltimore, the Rams have point totals of 34 // 28 // 21 // 34
- Jared Goff has thrown for 284+ yards and two touchdowns in all four of those games
- Todd Gurley has averaged only 3.56 yards per carry in this stretch, but has scored six touchdowns
- Over the last five weeks, Robert Woods has 56 targets and Tyler Higbee has 50; Cooper Kupp has 30 targets, and Brandin Cooks has 22
- Higbee played 62/70 snaps last week, while Gerald Everett played only four snaps; the Cardinals (in case you haven’t heard) have allowed 1087 yards and 15 touchdowns to tight ends this season; Travis Kelce is the only NFL tight end with more than 1087 yards, while Darren Waller is the closest to 15 touchdowns with 10
The Game ::
I have put off writing this game until the last possible minute, as most sports books in Vegas have not even bothered to put up a line for this one as they await confirmation on the status of Kyler Murray — but it is now 8:00 in the morning in the Central time zone (where I find myself this week — in a Starbucks in Branson, Missouri, of all places, surrounded by Chiefs sweatshirts, hats, and jerseys; where, I would like to point out, I saw no such universal fandom displays four and five years ago, with Royals sweatshirts, hats, and jerseys dominating this part of the country four years ago after the Royals’ World Series win…and with no such universal Royals fandom displayed the year before that, when the Royals lost the World Series; hmmm…), and by this point, research is starting for most of you on this slate, and it’s time to get this writeup out there even without firm news. We’ll approach this game assuming that Kyler plays — while a Kyler absence would put a major dent in the Cardinals’ offense, but may not change expectations all that much on the Rams, as it would actually be very fair to expect the Rams to try to close the season strong on offense regardless of what their opponent does (i.e., the Rams are probably not just closing out the game with a strictly run-based approach if they grab a lead against a Brett Hundley led team, but would instead, likely, continue to pour points on the scoreboard if they can).
We’ll start on the Rams’ side, then, where this offense got going too late in the year, but where they have certainly gotten going — with recent point totals of 34 // 28 // 21 // 31. After running 11 personnel on over 95% of plays last year, Sean McVay has been willing to shake things up more often this year — especially over the last month, with the Rams running 11 personnel on 77% of their plays, while mixing in 19% two-tight-end sets and 4% four-wide sets. The success of the Rams’ offense last year was built around their ability to dominate on the ground with an effective zone blocking scheme, off of which they built their play-action game that gave Jared Goff “levels” to work (with multiple options available in the same line of sight on a given play, at various levels of the field); but with the blueprint that Fangio and Belichick laid last year for slowing this scheme and the troubles the Rams have had on the offensive line this year, McVay has had to prove that he can be more than just a “system” coach. While he may have adapted a bit too late, he has started finding new ways to maneuver the field — and this week, he catches a Cardinals team that ranks 24th in DVOA on defense, while ranking 27th against the pass, 31st in yards allowed, 28th in points allowed, and 31st in opponent drive success rate. The Cardinals have allowed the third most plays per game, the most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks, the fourth most wide receiver receptions, the ninth most wide receiver yards, and (in case you haven’t heard) the most tight end yards and touchdowns (with almost twice as many touchdowns allowed to the position as any other team).
The Rams’ offensive evolution has included an increased emphasis on the tight end position, where Gerald Everett actually kicked things off way back in Weeks 4 and 5 against what are probably the second and third worst tight end defenses (the Bucs and Seahawks), when he saw eight and 11 targets and began to provide an idea of what this offense could look like. Everett proceeded to go for target counts of 5 // 10 // 3 // 12, after which he saw a dip against Chicago and got hurt against Baltimore, opening the door for Tyler Higbee to see six targets against the Ravens before going 8 // 11 // 14 with Everett on the sidelines, with 11 targets added last week in Everett’s return. After Everett topped 68 yards only once, Higbee has topped 100 in four consecutive games, while Everett played only four snaps in his return to the field last week (with blocking tight end Johnny Mundt also an underrated contributor to the resurgence of this offense, as he can be kept in to block even on passing downs to help tighten up this offensive line — essentially leaving McVay with an “either/or” option on Higbee and Everett).
This shift in offensive approach has also included a renewed emphasis on Robert Woods, who entered the Week 9 bye with target counts of 4 // 7 // 2, and who came out of the bye with target counts of 11 // 9 // 18 // 9 // 9 // 11. Woods has only eight red zone targets and four targets inside the 10 (exactly half as many as Cooper Kupp has in each area), but he does have 95+ yards in all but one game during this six game stretch. Kupp has been deemphasized since the bye, with only one game north of six targets, and with four or fewer targets in four of seven games. Brandin Cooks has also seen his role diminish as the Rams focus on the shorter areas of the field, with target counts in his last five games of 4 // 2 // 2 // 8 // 6.
The Rams have also leaned on Todd Gurley in games in which they are playing with a lead — giving him 28 touches in a 10-point win over Chicago, 20 touches in a 27-point win over Arizona, and 27 touches in a 16-point win over Seattle, while giving him touch counts of 12 // 9 // 14 // 15 in four losing efforts since the bye. Gurley has still not topped 97 yards in a game on the ground this year and is at some minor risk of being given a smaller workload to protect his health in a meaningless game, but the flip side of that second concern is that the Rams could try to send him out on a high note here, and L.A. sets up well to control this contest. Gurley is a risk/reward piece in this spot — with his 14 touchdowns on the year providing a big boost to his upside.
In spite of how many weapons the Cardinals have (or rather: because of how many weapons the Cardinals have, and how thin they spread volume across these weapons, and how unwilling they are to push the ball downfield), Arizona has been one of the easiest offenses in the league to break down this year, as betting on wide receivers on this team is merely “betting on outlier outcomes,” while Kyler — given his dual-threat ability and the general statistical effectiveness of this passing attack as a whole — is generally able to produce at a solid-to-elite level in nearly any matchup. The one area that has evolved on this offense throughout the season has been the backfield, where Kenyan Drake established himself a couple weeks ago as the clear, undisputed lead back, and where he has taken advantage of back-to-back quality setups to produce rushing totals of 137 and 168 on 22 and 24 carries. The Cardinals have adapted to Drake’s effectiveness (and to the lack of development and growth from their rookie wide receivers) by using multiple tight ends on 25% of their snaps over the last two weeks to pave the way on the ground.
The matchup for the Cardinals is interesting — and somewhat impossible to break down — as the talent on the Rams is largely high-end, while this defense not only ranks eighth in DVOA, but has also had some dominant stretches this year, including a seven game stretch in which the Ravens were the only team to top 17 points against them, with five of seven opponents (including the Cardinals, at home) held to 12 or fewer points; and yet, the Rams have also allowed 27 points to Carolina, 55 points to Tampa, 30 points to Seattle (while holding Seattle to 12 points the second time around), 45 points to Baltimore, 44 points to Dallas, and 34 points to San Francisco. From a DFS perspective, this has created a situation in which offenses either enter this matchup to die, or instead enter this matchup to send rosters to the top of the leaderboards. If multi-entering, then, the best way to approach matchups against the Rams has been to isolate your exposure if you want to attack (i.e., betting on the offense against the Rams, but only on dedicated rosters, rather than across your builds), while the best way to approach if single-entering has been to take a stand one way or the other on how you expect the game environment against the Rams to play out that week.
JM’s Interpretation ::
With the Rams playing at home, the Cardinals banged up, and the price (and maybe even ownership) on Drake rising, I expect to leave the Cardinals’ side of this game alone — not quite “pulling my chips off the table” the way I expect to with the Raiders this week (as I’ve had only a small amount of Drake exposure the last two weeks — above the field, but not nearly as much as I would have liked after the fact), but nevertheless deciding that I likely “got while the getting was good” on Drake, while feeling that there will be better spots than a hobbled Kyler on the road against a sometimes-elite defense.
On the Rams’ side, I’ll have interest (potentially heavy interest) in Higbee — whose price (especially on DraftKings) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given the matchup and his recent usage — while I’ll also probably cycle some Woods, Goff, and Gurley through my builds. While there are not nearly as many reasons to like Kupp and Cooks on paper, I may also have enough Rams exposure in other spots that I’ll have a dash of hedge bets on these two, while I’ll also be sure to leave at least a few of my (likely) 19 builds without any Rams at all, for the slim risk that Everett plays more this week and cuts Higbee’s value in half, and that the ball is spread around enough on this offense that they end up scoring 30+ without a single elite score emerging on this side of the ball. It’s going to take an outlier scenario for the Rams to fail on the scoreboard here, but with three viable wideouts, two viable tight ends, and a high-usage running back, that doesn’t “guarantee” that slate-breakers are emerging on individual pieces in this spot.