Stafford, Cardinals Both Trending Downwards

Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - There are often times when teams backslide into the playoffs to some extent—a hot first half wears off, injuries settle in, or turnover regression hits at midseason. But it's rare to imagine both teams in a playoff game on that same side of the fence, and that's where the discourse seems to have settled on this game.

The Cardinals are 5-6 since a 7-0 start to the season and have lost four of their last five. The Rams, one of the teams that beat them over that stretch, finished with wins in five of their last six games, but did so while Matthew Stafford was absolutely falling apart. The Rams have turned the ball over nine times in the last four weeks, and three of those five wins were by one score. Go to the end-of-November DVOA and you see the Cardinals in fourth while the Rams are sixth. Today … the Rams have actually improved (!!) to fifth, but the Cardinals are 10th.

These teams exchanged a pair of home losses to each other in the regular season as divisional rivals. The Rams were able to ride a Leonard Floyd interception into the Arizona red zone to a double-digit lead on Monday Night Football in Week 14 and hold on for the win. The Cardinals pulled away in much the same way of the second quarter in Week 4, picking a Sony Michel fumble up at the Rams 21 and establishing an 11-point lead that they ultimately ballooned to 21.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

  ARI LAR
DVOA 10.9% (10) 21.6% (5)
WEI DVOA 0.8% (16) 21.2% (7)
Cardinals on Offense
  ARI OFF LAR DEF
DVOA 3.1% (15) -8.3% (5)
WEI DVOA -3.4% (18) -11.2% (6)
PASS 24.7% (10) -1.0% (6)
RUSH -11.8% (22) -18.0% (5)
Rams on Offense
  ARI DEF LAR OFF
DVOA -8.3% (6) 10.6% (8)
WEI DVOA -6.1% (9) 2.9% (14)
PASS -2.3% (5) 26.6% (7)
RUSH -16.6% (6) -3.8% (12)
Special Teams
  ARI LAR
DVOA -0.5% (20) 2.7% (4)

All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

ARI Week-to-Week Graph

Without DeAndre Hopkins, the Cardinals have fallen apart on offense. In games Hopkins plays, the Cardinals are 8-2 with two one-score losses; otherwise, they are 4-3. DVOA tells the tale even more elegantly:

Cardinals Offense With or Without Hopkins
  Weeks Offense
DVOA
Pass O
DVOA
Run O
DVOA
w/Hopkins 1-8, 13-14 8.3% 39.1% -12.9%
No Hopkins 9-12, 15-18 -3.6% 7.7% -10.2%

Arizona has also lost Rondale Moore (ankle, questionable) for most of the last month of the season—though he was mostly being used as just a gadget guy anyway—leaving their depth exposed at a position where they desperately need depth as the four-wideout team. They're the only team in the NFL that ran four-wide sets on more than 8% of their snaps, at 14% per Sharp Football Stats.

Over the past four weeks, the Cardinals have become primarily effective as a middle-of-the-field-attacking team. Of their 173 passes in that span, 35 of them targeted the middle of the field for 90.9% DVOA. Arizona's other 138 passes have gone for a 3.5% DVOA and a 45% success rate. In Week 14, albeit with Hopkins, the Cardinals threw 10 passes over the middle and managed -45.8% DVOA. That number absolutely cannot stand if Arizona is to compete in this game, and there's added benefit for the Cardinals here as the Rams will be missing starting safeties Jordan Fuller (ankle) and Taylor Rapp (concussion). The Rams pulled their 2019 starting safety, 37-year-old former All-Pro Eric Weddle, out of retirement for the game.

The Rams led ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate and will be able to field a defense capable of bothering Kyler Murray, but they'll want the pass rush to contain him because most of Arizona's explosive plays now come through Murray winning off-script. The Cardinals were third in the NFL with a 122.0% deep pass DVOA on the season, but that reduced to just 93.5% without Hopkins. The Rams allowed a 94.9% DVOA on deep passing in their two games against the Cardinals this year. Arizona's naturally a big-play team anyway, and so the Rams being light both starting safeties could potentially swing things a bit.

Murray was pressured eight times by the Rams in Week 4 and an astonishing 18 times in Week 14. Murray's 80.4 QBR when blitzed was fifth-best in the NFL, and his QBR when under pressure was 46.7, also fifth. The Rams didn't bring all that much heat against Murray. Arizona's offensive line has not been great all season and that's even giving them the benefit of the doubt on the non-Rodney Hudson centers and their penchant for aborted snaps. Aaron Donald, it turns out, is still very good at football. This is problematic for the Cardinals. Von Miller did notably let Murray escape out the back door by blowing contain once in Week 14, but otherwise the Rams pass rush mostly had their way with Arizona.

The thing that might be a potential game-changer here for the Cardinals would be getting a healthy Murray involved in the run game more. His fantasy managers were proud of James Conner's rushing touchdown total, but that was a volume stat rather than an efficiency thing. In Arizona's first year with Kliff Kingsbury and Murray, Murray ran the ball 93 times and Arizona's offense finished second in rushing DVOA without almost anyone of notable merit on the line. Murray ran 133 times for 11 touchdowns in 2020, finishing first in QB rushing DYAR. In 2021, battling an ankle injury all season, Murray ran 80 times and finished with -90 DYAR. Even beyond scrambling, the Cardinals could really use Murray's help creating some 5-yard gains ,because their rush offense DVOA is a pedestrian No. 22 and Conner is a game-time decision. The Rams did slightly worse than their average with a -7.9% DVOA as a run defense in their two games against Arizona. Most of that happened in the Week 4 meeting.

The Rams saw 19% four-wide sets in their two games against the Cardinals per Sharp Football Stats, but that might be out of the question given Arizona's wideout injury issues. Antoine Wesley finished with 1.7% DVOA in 32 targets as Hopkins' replacement outside, though he did catch three touchdowns.

WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL

LAR Week-to-Week Graph

The key to defeating the Rams this season has been generating pass rush on Stafford without blitzing. Stafford has ESPN's No. 1 QBR when blitzed—92.3 on 140 dropbacks. But when Stafford is actually pressured, his QBR falls to a more middle-of-the-pack 20.7 on 148 dropbacks. (Dak Prescott led pressured QBR with 59.4 if you need a calibrator on that.) The Cardinals actually have one of the highest blitz rates in the NFL this year at 33.6% per Sportradar/PFR data, and they're especially aggressive on money downs. They only blitzed Stafford eight times in 41 dropbacks in Week 4 when they built a big lead. But they blitzed 11 times in 30 dropbacks in Week 15 when the game script wasn't in their favor. That tells us that, as it was in the first two games, game script is probably a major factor here. What Arizona loves to do when the chips are down is something that Stafford has thrived on all season.

The Rams were first in the NFL in Pass Block Win Rate at 68%. But they have also dealt with some missed snaps over the course of the season, as Rob Havenstein, Andrew Whitworth, and Brian Allen have all been downed by COVID-19 or "minor" injuries at some point. While Stafford's turnover streak has blossomed over the last three weeks, Sportradar says Stafford has been under pressure six times, four times, and 14 times respectively in Weeks 16, 17, and 18. Stafford popped up on the injury report with a toe, but the severity has been downplayed for most of the week by the Rams. It may be a factor in this game, but it'll be hard to know how much of one until kickoff.

Arizona's defense has nosedived over the past couple of months. They're sixth overall but ninth in weighted defensive DVOA, and every one of their double-digit negative (i.e., good) pass defense DVOA games came in the first 11 weeks aside from Week 13's wind bowl in Chicago where neither team could really pass. The "break in case of playoffs" glass was shattered for J.J. Watt, and he may immediately slide into being one of the most important players in this game. He has a history of this—he did it with the Texans in the 2019 playoffs—but it's probably best to expect him to be on a pitch count. The Rams are weaker on the interior line than they are outside, and Watt bringing some juice there would be huge for the Cardinals.

Arizona has also sorely missed Robert Alford, who went down with a pectoral injury in that Week 14 loss to the Rams. Alford hadn't played in either the 2019 or 2020 regular seasons, but had 25 SIS points saved in just 580 snaps and was the closest thing the team had to a sure outside corner next to Byron Murphy. Alford remains on IR and is unlikely to be activated for this game, while rookie corner Marco Wilson (shoulder) is trending towards being the starter outside.

Rams Second-Half Pass Offense Fade
  DVOA Pass O
DVOA
Run O
DVOA
Weeks 1-9 20.7% 44.7% -3.4%
Weeks 10-18 -1.3% 5.4% -4.2%

The Rams have traditionally been a pass offense fader late in the season and this year was no exception. Interestingly, a lot of the fade came on short passes. The Rams had 52.5% DVOA on them from Weeks 1 to 9, but that fell to just 10.5% DVOA in Weeks 10 to 18. And while some of that is an elevated turnover rate, most of it is the success rate of the passes falling from 58% to 51%. Los Angeles did manage a 40.6% short pass DVOA against the Cardinals in that Week 14 win, a game where Cooper Kupp caught 13-of-15 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. I know, I know, it's not particularly surprising to learn—Cooper Kupp is going to be a major factor in the Rams' chances of winning. But this was also Odell Beckham's most efficient game of his Rams career as he caught 6-of-7 balls for 77 yards and a touchdown. It was one of two games where Beckham went over 40 yards, and it was his highest catch rate by far.

Arizona held the Rams to -13.0% DVOA rushing over the two games they played, slightly above their season average of -16.6%. Darrell Henderson ran for 89 yards on 14 carries in the first game, but Sony Michel managed just 20 carries for 79 yards in Week 14. The Rams remain slightly limited by their running game. Their full-season red zone rush DVOA of -10.3% is 21st, and their goal-to-go DVOA is -6.0%, 22nd. Those numbers get even worse from Week 10 on, where the Rams had just a -17.3% DVOA in the red zone as a whole and a -26.4% DVOA on their rushing red zone attempts. The Cardinals red zone defense was very good in those areas over the course of the season, with a -16.2% red zone rush DVOA (sixth) and a -25.5% goal-to-go DVOA (fourth). If the Cardinals can con the traditionally-conservative-on-fourth-downs Sean McVay into some field goal attempts in the red zone, it would go a long way towards their odds of winning.

The Rams don't escape their general ethos as an offense very often, though per Sharp Football Stats they did go from 84% 11-personnel and 13% 12-personnel on the season to 75% 11-personnel and 21% 12-personnel in the two games against the Cardinals. Van Jefferson is questionable, and if he didn't play it would be a bit of a blow to the Rams deep-passing game as he has been their most explosive target all season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Los Angeles went from 30th in special teams DVOA last year to fourth this year behind Matt Gay's 32-of-34 performance on field goals (+9.7 points added, third in the NFL) and Brandon Powell's 61-yard return touchdown, which lifted them to third in punt return DVOA.

Arizona finished 20th in special teams DVOA, below average on every unit except kickoff coverage. Antonio Hamilton and Dennis Gardeck were their leading special teams tacklers. Matt Prater was seven-of-10 on field goals beyond 50 yards, but five-of-nine between 40 and 49 yards.

OUTLOOK

DVOA believes that the Rams are slightly undervalued by the four-point line in their favor at home. Most of the reasons to believe in the Cardinals are more about what could change in this specific game rather than something the season-long or weighted data actually would endorse. Can J.J. Watt get Stafford pressured? Will the Rams safety play drop-off hurt them significantly, or will Jalen Ramsey and the pass rush be able to sweep it under the rug?

But the Rams have also done just enough struggling over the back half of the season that they aren't an overwhelming favorite in this game, even with a different struggling team in town. As was the case with both of their earlier games this year, the script is going to dictate a lot about this game.

 

 

STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

2 comments, Last at 18 Jan 2022, 2:03am

1 A struggling Murray…

A struggling Murray/Kingsbury combo is more likely to determine the outcome than an aging, injured JJ Watt.