Each week, Rams 101 will isolate one matchup, either man on man or unit versus unit, that we think will be the key factor in the outcome of that week's game. When the St. Louis Rams host the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener, the Rams defensive line must get the better of the Cardinals pass protectors and get to QB Carson Palmer early and often.
Last season the Rams tied for the most sacks in the NFL. By the same token, the Cardinals' offensive line surrendered the most sacks in the league last season.
The Rams' front four remains unchanged. Chris Long and Robert Quinn represent two of the best end pass rushers in the league. The Cardinals have tackle Levi Brown back from injury and picked up another upgrade on the other side in Chiefs' cast-off Eric Winston. They did, however, lose rookie guard Jonathan Cooper to a season ending broken leg in the preseason. Even with the Cardinals' upgrades, the Rams still have a distinct personnel advantage.
Getting to Palmer with just the front four will be key for the Rams ability to stop the Cardinals' offensive attack for a number of reasons.
1. The Rams are going to need to drop linebackers into the middle and play safeties over the top to contain Larry Fitzgerald. With all due respect to Calvin Johnson, Fitzgerald is still the most complete receiver in the NFL. His length and strength make it difficult for a cornerback in single coverage to stop Fitzgerald on short and medium routes, while he still has the speed to get over the top of a secondary. The Rams don't want to leave their corners on an island by blitzing a lot.
2. Carson Palmer gets happy feet when he gets hit a lot. Palmer is still one of the best in the business when he has a clean pocket. But years of getting pummeled in Cincinnati (including a career-threatening knee injury) have left him a bit skittish when the pocket breaks down. Palmer never has been a great passer when flushed from the pocket and won't remind anyone of RGIII when on the run.
3. Bruce Arians' offense is predicated on longer, vertical routes. This is no West Coast offense that will attempt to dink and dunk its way down the field. Arians philosophy is to run the football, draw up linebackers and safeties in support, and strike over the top. To do that, Palmer will need time to allow those deeper routes to develop. If the Rams defensive line can force the Cardinals out of that game plan, they'll have gained a major advantage.
Arians also likes to slow blitzers with screens. The screen game isn't very effective when just the front four are rushing, leaving the back seven to cover downfield. Screens break big plays when the defense is sending five and six players into the backfield, giving the offense a numbers advantage blocking downfield.
The Rams will score some points on an aggressive Cardinals' defense that will surrender some big plays. To win, they have to have a repeat of 2012 when the defensive line wrought havoc in the offensive backfield.
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