Somewhat lost in the excitement of what has been a pretty fun NFL Season (Lamar || Raiders competitive || Saints // Packers // Vikings // 49ers // Seahawks all 8-3 or better) has been the fact that last year’s seemingly unstoppable Rams offense has devolved into this. At 6-5, it’s not as if the Rams are the bottom feeders they’ve been made out to be, but they need to catch the 9-2 Seahawks or the 8-3 Vikings at the moment to sneak into the playoffs, and they are coming off a stretch in which they scored 12 points against the Steelers, 17 against the Bears, and six against the Ravens. Those are all elite defenses, but last season, “elite defenses” wouldn’t be nearly the concern they are for L.A. this year.
The Rams offensive line has continued to struggle this year — particularly from a “working as a unit” perspective — which is a big deal for an offense that is built to run the ball effectively and then use play action off of that for the passing attack to work. Todd Gurley has zero games of 100+ rushing yards after posting six such games last season, and he has only 114 receiving yards after posting 580 a year ago. Gurley’s snaps have been somewhat stable, with right around 50 in every game, but the line has not been able to get him going, and everything else is suffering as a result.
The good news for the Rams, however, is that the Cardinals are not the Steelers, Bears, or Ravens. This Arizona defense ranks 29th in DVOA, 30th in points allowed, and 31st in yards allowed. The Cardinals have given up one of the longest lists of notable stat lines in the league:
153-1 (24) CMC
104-0 (22) Carson
93-0 (19) Mixon
102-1 (21) Latavius
11-112-1 Michael Thomas
These two teams, by the way, rank first and second in pace of play…and bottom four in time of possession, with the Cardinals holding the ball for only 26:59 per game, and with the Rams sitting at 27:45. Over five minutes of play time will be added in this spot compared to what these teams average, while these two teams rank 31st and 32nd in opponent plays per game. This all comes against the backdrop of the Cardinals sticking to the short areas of the field, the Rams having a good defense, and the Rams offense looking unpredictable of late — but at the very least, volume will get a notable boost in this spot, with quite a few more offensive plays available for at least one of these two teams than is usually the case.
We should look for the Rams to build from the inside out in this spot — working from the ground to the short areas of the field, and only moving deep from there if the other two aspects of the offense are clicking. While this should be enough to push Gurley to 18+ touches for what would be only the fifth time this year, perhaps the bigger impact here would be the return to relevance of Cooper Kupp, who — it’s easy to forget, after the Rams’ last month — was right next to Mike Thomas and the Bucs in the top four in yards per game before going a stunning-low 9-88-0 across his last three contests. Heading into his stretch against the Steelers, Bears, and Ravens, Kupp had gone for 100+ in five of seven and scored five touchdowns. It’s not particularly likely that the Cardinals have the antidote for Kupp — and if the targets are there, there’s a strong chance for the production to follow for the first time in a month.
Joining Kupp in the short and intermediate areas is Robert Woods, who has gone for 80+ yards in each of the last three “down games” for Kupp in which both were on the field, while going for under 50 yards in four of Kupp’s last five big games. Play volume could turn high enough for that to be only a footnote, but it is worth keeping in mind if thinking through how you’d like to build around this game. Kupp has the edge in red zone usage (11 targets vs three) and touchdowns (five vs one), but Woods does have eight or more targets in over half his games, and Arizona is facing 38 pass attempts per game — the fourth most in the league. Woods should be able to get looks.
The most disappointing player in this group has been Brandin Cooks, with only one game over 74 yards this year and only one game over four targets in his last five. The Rams have somewhat ditched the deep passing game lately, while the Rams should be able to move the ball effectively with Kupp // Gurley // Woods, so the biggest case for going to Cooks would be the pure volume available in this game. Either way you break it down (simply adding about 10 plays due to five minutes being available, or calculating percentage boost in “opponent plays per game” against the league average for the Cardinals and Rams), you end up with about 10 plays available to split between these two teams against the league-average 63ish each averages per game. If these 10 plays go half-and-half, or if one team jumps out to a big lead and slows down with a run-leaning approach, we won’t really notice the availability of these plays — but if this game remains close and most of the play boost ends up on one side, that boost in volume will make a notable difference.
The transition for this offense to a shorter-area attack has been eased by the emergence of Gerald Everett, who has eight or more looks in four of his last eight games. Everett, however, is dealing with a knee issue that limited him to 17 snaps on Monday and had him missing practice Wednesday. There is still time for him to get cleared (in which case, he would have a bit of a muddy snap share setup at an elevated price), but if he misses, Tyler Higbee saw six looks last week with Everett missing most of the game; and while he has topped 25 yards only twice and 50 yards zero times, he would catch the tight end matchup that has six notable stat lines from the position on that list above (which doesn’t even include the two-touchdown game Dwelley on 14 total yards).
The Cardinals come off the bye to face a Rams defense that has been playing better than the offense, with a number 11 DVOA ranking (third vs the run, 20th vs the pass) — though the Rams’ recent run of strong play (prior to their run-in with Lamar) came against the Bears, Steelers, Bengals and inconsistent Falcons. Outside of those games, the Rams held the 49ers to 20 and the Saints to nine in the Drew Brees injury game, but they also allowed Cam’s Panthers to score 27, the Bucs to score 55, and the Seahawks to score 30. This is not an “attackable” defense, but Arizona has 25+ points in six of their last seven games — and while four came against soft defenses (and they do have a bad game in this stretch vs the tough defense of the Saints), they also have two strong games against the 49ers.
The Arizona backfield has a below-average matchup against a Rams team that has been solid against running backs both on the ground and through the air, and this group is a bit of a mess with Kenyan Drake in the mix, Chase Edmonds expected back, and David Johnson likely to be more healthy off the bye. Kliff Kingsbury has talked about ‘finding how these pieces fit,’ so consider this spot to be merely “trying to guess on a play that might see the most usage and might hit from there.”
The Cardinals also spread the ball around among pass catchers, such that Kyler Murray has produced strong to elite fantasy scores in five of his last seven games, while only two usable stat lines (one from Christian Kirk, and another from Andy Isabella on only one catch) have emerged from this receiving group in that stretch. Kirk, of course, is the best bet in this offense with the most consistent usage and the best bet for downfield volume. The biggest threat to Kirk is Ramsey’s potential shadow (with Wade Phillips comfortable allowing Ramsey to travel into the slot even if the Cardinals counter by increasing slot snaps for Kirk). The other most interesting piece — in terms of potentially winning a tourney for you — is Isabella, who could conceivably come out of the bye with his snap counts and targets set to rise after seeing 17 // 26 // 20 snaps in his last three games. (To be clear here: Isabella has been developing slowly, and the Cardinals have not made an effort to emphasize him. This would be merely a speculative play.) Larry Fitzgerald also carries a decent floor, and if you squint real hard you can see ceiling.
JM’s Interpretation ::
While I don’t expect this game to turn into a slate-bending shootout, this is a solid spot, with Arizona having allowed 27+ points in eight of 11 (and 21+ in every game), and with the Rams coming off a brutal stretch that may take away some ownership. This is not last year’s Rams, but there is potential to build pieces from this game closer to your core.
For me, it’s Kupp, then Gurley, then Woods on the Rams — with Goff not especially likely to post a true top score, but not running blind toward that mark either. I’m not sure yet what I’m playing this week (I’m likeliest to settle on around 19 Wildcat entries again, but I want to poke around first before I settle on that), but if I go with a tighter set of entries (with this an especially attractive slate for three- to five-entry max; more on this on the Chat Pod this week), there is a chance Kupp finds his way into my core. And if I go broader, I’ll likely end up with some Gurley and Woods to hedge against that bet. Cooks is the least likely of the bunch to hit, but his ceiling (while less likely) is still outstanding if it shows up. I’ll also consider Everett as a risky higher-priced play if he comes back in time from this knee issue, while Higbee will be a really interesting salary saver on DK/Fdraft (where tight end pricing is less condensed than on FanDuel) if Everett is out for this matchup.
With Cards exposure, I’ll likely focus on Kyler — though there may be enough other spots with paths to 30 points for a quarterback and a strong stacking partner available that I won’t actually end up with that. But Kyler has been consistent; and while there’s some concern that Wade Phillips // Donald // Ramsey // etc. could slow the Cards, I’m fine betting on Kyler off the bye against the Rams on a short week. If moving beyond Kyler, Kirk is interesting for the upside (with risk) — and there are other pieces you could mess around with in game stack scenarios from there.