Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Wild Card Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.

One of the NFC’s wild card games will take place at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California as the Los Angeles Rams will face the Arizona Cardinals. Here’s what you should know:

INGLEWOOD, CA – DECEMBER 05: Los Angeles Rams Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald (99) and Los Angeles Rams Linebacker Von Miller (40) look on during the NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Los Angeles Rams on December 5, 2021, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

RAMS’ DEFENSE IS TALENTED AND OVERLOOKED

Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit between 2017-19 was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who kept the system in place. That led to him getting the Los Angeles Chargers’ coaching job and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris now runs this side of the ball.

Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, run-stuffer A’Shawn Robinson, former Bear Leonard Floyd and seven-time All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven. Nevertheless, the team finished the 2021 regular season third in interceptions and sacks and sixth against the run – however they were just 15th in points surrendered and 22nd against the pass.

Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last three years out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions (and sometimes got burned in the process). In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage, and former backup Darious Williams. Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller are normally the team’s primary safeties, but with both of them nursing injuries head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead have coaxed five-time All-Pro safety Eric Weddle out of a two-year retirement to rejoin the team he suited up for in 2019.

This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald and Miller into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness. Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations and the Rams mainly use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Morris mix it up more against Arizona?

INGLEWOOD, CA – JANUARY 09: Los Angeles Rams Quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) gives Los Angeles Rams Wide Receiver Cooper Kupp (10) the signals during the NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams on January 9, 2022, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO

Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago, the team didn’t field a good offense again for a long time. That changed when McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.

Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.

The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – from Todd Gurley years ago to a combination currently made up of Darrell Henderson, Sony Michel and Cam Akers. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, David Edwards, Brian Allen, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).

One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.

Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays.

Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. These are mostly executed out of “empty” shotgun formations with “bunch” and “stack” alignments by their receivers, with many of their run-action plays performed under center.

Due to inconsistencies in his game, former first overall draft pick Jared Goff was shipped to the Detroit Lions last winter in exchange for ex-Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford, who remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous passers. Possessing one of pro football’s strongest arms, in recent years he has also developed a mind and accuracy to match. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made – he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover Two…. His bold throws are now also good decisions.”

The weapons that Stafford has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Van Jefferson, Robert Woods (out for the season with a knee injury) and tight end Tyler Higbee. Woods is a solid possession receiver and Jefferson brings speed to the table. Beckham isn’t as explosive as he once was but is still an effective route runner, gets yards after the catch and remains a red zone threat. Higbee has been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts).

Kupp in particular is great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet and elite separation skills at the top of his pass patterns help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and company in what are known as “high/low” concepts – with one receiver being the low man on short routes to influence safeties to cheat down low and take him away while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 03: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals talk on the side line during the game against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

ARIZONA’S OFFENSE HAS CONTINUED SUCCESS INTO 2021

One of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2019 was the Arizona Cardinals’ hiring of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach to replace one-and-done flameout Steve Wilks. Kingsbury, a former backup quarterback in the NFL and head coach at Texas Tech, was considered by some to be a coordinator candidate for pro teams but was hired as a head coach likely due to his being a young and bright offensive mind. So far Kingsbury has shown that the job isn’t too big for him and that his scheme – which is a mix of traditional NFL concepts and Air Raid plays – can translate to the professional level.

Executing the system is former Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. Like the acquisition of Kingsbury, Arizona stunned outside observers by taking the 5’10” Murray with the first overall draft pick out of Oklahoma two years ago and he has become a sensation in the National Football League with his strong arm and elite quickness and speed.

Murry’s accuracy is a bit scattershot, especially when he feels pressure and retreats on his dropback, but he mostly executes Kingsbury’s system – which leans towards the usage of 10 and 11 personnel and two-tight end sets – with ease. Arizona also likes to use three-by-one sets (three wide receivers on one side and another wideout or a tight end on the other) along with some shifts and motion to help Murray in the passing game. According to Benoit, “The unusual distribution forces a defense to reveal if it is in man or zone coverage. It also creates opportunities to flood one side of the field or set up downfield crossing patterns.”

The Cardinals also incorporate a lot of designed runs like zone reads, run-pass options, quarterback sweeps and lead draws to take advantage of Murray’s ability to make people miss in space. Helping him create yards on the ground are the speedy combination of James Conner and Chase Edmonds, and the offensive line that opens holes for them in the running game is made up of D.J. Humphries, Justin Pugh, Rodney Hudson, Max Garcia and Kelvin Beachum.

All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins might not be the fastest wideout in football but he succeeds with good quickness, body control, route-running ability and excellent hands – akin to Hall of Famer Cris Carter. He’s also versatile by being able to align all over the formation and is especially adept on intermediate in-breaking routes over the middle of the field, but he’s still recovering from a torn MCL and will not play on Monday night.

Hopkins’ pass-catching compatriots are deep threat Christian Kirk, former Cincinnati Bengal A.J. Green, rookie Rondale Moore and tight end Zach Ertz. Interestingly, future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald is no longer among Arizona’s receiving corps as he contemplates retirement after a 17-year career.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA – OCTOBER 10: Quarterback Trey Lance #5 of the San Francisco 49ers scrambles under pressure from Chandler Jones #55 and J.J. Watt #99 of the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of the NFL game at State Farm Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 17-10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

CARDINALS’ DEFENSE HAS PIECES TO BUILD AROUND, BUT SO-SO THUS FAR

Former Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph was given the keys to the Cardinals’ defense by Kingsbury and he leads a 3-4 unit that has some talented parts but haven’t been able to put the pieces to the puzzle together just yet. Joseph prefers to use single high coverages (Cover One and Three) on the back end and bring various blitzes up front, but he doesn’t quite have the ideal personnel to make it work – as evidenced by Arizona finishing 2021 just 20th against the run, 13th in sacks and 15th in interceptions. But progress has been made against the pass with a seventh-place finish and giving up the 11th-least number of points.

J.J. Watt, the only player in league history not named Lawrence Taylor or Aaron Donald to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press three times, is easily the best defensive end to play in a 3-4 scheme since Bruce Smith. At 32 some of his athletic gifts have been sapped due to age and various injuries over the last few years but he remains of the league’s better defensive linemen when healthy. Jordan Phillips, Corey Peters, Leki Fotu and Zach Allen usually rotate in alongside Watt.

At linebacker the Cardinals pick from a combination of speedy second-level defenders that includes Jordan Hicks, Devon Kinnard, former Bill Tanner Valejo and Isaiah Simmons. Simmons is a hybrid-type who has experience at both linebacker and safety and is used by Joseph to spy on mobile quarterbacks and always keep an eye on them.

The best two players in that group of linebackers, however, are Chandler Jones and Markus Golden. Jones and Golden have put up seven and three seasons, respectively, in their careers of double-digit sacks numbers, giving Joseph plentiful options to rush the quarterback besides Watt.

Three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson, now in his 11th NFL season, departed the desert for the Minnesota Vikings in the spring and has been replaced by third-year cornerback Byron Murphy and rookie Marco Wilson (slot corner Robert Alford is done for the season with a pectoral injury). Budda Baker is a blossoming star at safety and his tag-team partner is Jalen Thompson.

Tony Fiorello

Tony’s work has appeared in multiple publications, including Buffalo Hockey Central, WNY Hockey Report, the Tonawanda News, the Niagara Gazette, Community Papers of Western New York, Sports and Leisure Magazine, WNYAthletics, From the 300 Level and Bee Group Newspapers. He graduated from Buffalo State College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfiorello.

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