BY: ED COLE
TEMPE, Ariz. – The St. Louis Rams are confident coming into University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. They’ve won two of their last three games – beating the world champion Seahawks at home and the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
They’d love nothing more than to make the hottest team in the NFL – the Arizona Cardinals – their latest victim, as they look to improve to 4-5, following a 1-4 start to the season.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher wouldn’t say his team has an upper hand when it comes to divisional games, even though they’re heading to Glendale, Ariz., with a 2-1 record in the NFC West.
“I wouldn’t say we have everybody’s number. We’re going to play hard,” Fisher said. “That’s what we’ve done every week, it just hasn’t gone well for us.”
“We lost some close games and we had some games get out of hand,” Fisher said. “Fortunately, for us, two of the last three weeks against Seattle and San Francisco, we stayed in it until the end and we found a way to win it.”
All Fisher can ask from his team at this point is to go out and play hard each and every week and make things happen, and over the last few weeks, it has.
“We’ve got four or five rookies on defense or in the secondary because of injuries, but whoever’s going out there and playing, they’re doing the best they can,” Fisher said.
How the Rams have been able to win lately stems from the play of their defensive front four, led by defensive ends William Hayes and Robert Quinn, along with defensive tackles Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald, who is having a monster season so far.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians liked what he saw from Donald – the former Pittsburgh Panther – at the NFL Combine and at the NFL Draft.
“Absolutely loved him,” Arians said. “Why wouldn’t you love a disruptive guy who just tears up the middle of a pocket and plays hard against the run? He had a great motor. We would’ve loved to have him.”
Fisher is happy to have Donald on his side, instead of against him.
“[I’m] very impressed with him thus far,” Fisher said. “I say this weekly when I’m asked about him, if you didn’t know who he was and you watched him on the practice field or you saw him in the building, then you would assume he’s a five or six-year vet.”
“He’s mature, he’s got great hands and leverage, he plays hard, he anticipates things and he’s difficult to block,” Fisher said. “We’ve been increasing his game reps over the last three, four weeks, and as a result, we’re getting a lot more production out of him.”
Donald and that Rams front seven sacked 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick eight times last Sunday – a season high for them. Arians knows Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will bring that kind of heat and pressure on the Cardinals offensive line and to quarterback Carson Palmer on Sunday.
“They’re getting there with their front four. They’re also blitzing and doing more Gregg Williams’ style, and that’s attacking all the time with three-man fronts,” Arians said. “We have to do a good job of protecting Carson [Palmer] this week and not let [Robert] Quinn and those guys get those disruptive sack-fumbles plays, especially Aaron Donald, too, in the middle.”
The Cardinals offensive line has stayed intact all season long, which is why they’ve only given up 13 sacks through eight games. The familiarity with each other, tackle Bobby Massie says, is what will help them and the offense against relentless Rams pass rush.
“Yea it does, because we’ve had the same line since OTAs and minicamp, so we’ve been playing well together,” Massie said.
Massie says there’s no more pressure on the offensive line this Sunday than it is on any other Sunday.
“It’s not a lot of pressure, we just gotta come out there and do what we get paid to do,” Massie said. “Go out there and open holes for ‘Dre [Andre Ellington] and make sure Carson’s [Palmer] got enough time.”
Being able to stay hot on third down and in the red zone will be critical for the Cardinals offense. Arizona went 9-for-15 on third down and 4-for-4 in the red zone against the Cowboys last Sunday. In order to wear down and eliminate that St. Louis pass rush, Palmer and his offense will have to do more of the same to them.
“They’re playing well at the right time for them,” Palmer said. “We need to catch them and play our best football in order to execute the right way and do what we need to get done against these guys.”
The Rams lose quarterback Sam Bradford for the season. Shaun Hill replaces him. Then Austin Davis replaces Hill in the season opener and he’s been the man ever since.
Davis has been through a lot in his first full season as the starting quarterback for the Rams, but he’s learned a lot and grown through the trials and tribulations.
“Part of that is learning how to play well and learning how to play bad, just all the things that come with being a starting quarterback—handling your body, handling the media, just numerous things you can’t prepare for until you’re in that position,” Davis said.
“You have to have a short memory within the game and also within the next week you’ve got to be able to let bad plays go and move forward,” Davis said.
Davis has completed 64-percent of his passes this season and is gaining confidence as each week passes. It doesn’t hurt that Davis has weapons on his side like Zac Stacy, Tre Mason, Tavon Austin and Lance Kendricks, just to name a few.
Yes, Davis has weapons at his disposal, but they’re no good to him if he’s 100 miles and running on Sunday, which is what Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is hoping to accomplish: keep Davis off kilter all day.
The aggressiveness of the Cardinals defense is what jumps out to Davis when he watches film on them.
“[They’re] not scared to bring pressures,” Davis said. “They’ve been really, really good in the run game, and obviously Patrick Peterson and [Antonio] Cromartie at corner are two of the best corners in the league. They’re confident.”
“It’s going to be a big test for us. You’re looking at arguably the best team in the NFL right now. Their record speaks to that,” Davis said. “It’s what we need, though. It’s what we want. We want a big challenge. We feel like we’ve been progressing the last couple of weeks. Things have started coming together. Big win last week, and we’re going to look forward to this one.”