Five matchups that may determine Sunday’s outcome:
Bruce Arians vs. Gregg Williams
Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to bring an almost suicidal amount of pressure. Cardinals offensive mastermind Bruce Arians likes to push the ball down the field until the defense gets tired of hitting his quarterback. Both have won rings as coordinators, although one endured a year-long banishment for paying his players to hurt opposing quarterbacks.
I think that Palmer’s deep passing has been a result of poor opponents as much as a change in his philosophy. I expect that Palmer will be able to locate and deliver to his hot routes effectively enough to be productive, causing Williams to psychotically bring additional rushers until something opens up downfield. Michael Floyd could have a big game this week.
Aaron Donald, DT vs. Ted Larsen, OG
If anyone is going to challenge J.J. Watt for defensive player of the year in 2015, it’s second-year phenom Aaron Donald. After a 9-sack rookie season on the inside, Donald already has 3.5 sacks through three games. At only 6’1” and 285 lbs, Donald is small and fast enough to prevent opposing linemen from getting leverage on him and blowing into the backfield — like crossing Elvis Dumervil with a bowling ball.
Ted Larsen has been quiet in relief of Mike Iupati (big contract — er, knee), which is a good thing. While the Cards are not getting a ton of push from the left side of the line in the running game (only 21% of all rushes per FootballOutsiders.com), Larsen has held up against lesser opponents through three weeks. I expect Larsen to get plenty of help from Chris Johnson and Lyle Sendlein.
Kevin Minter, ILB vs. Todd Gurley, RB
St. Louis’s offense through the first three weeks has been — in a word — poopy. They’re ranked 21st in VOA against some pretty average opponents. The Rams aren’t going to get much help from their very pedestrian quarterback (Nick Foles in 25th in QBR through three weeks) and receivers. Expect the Rams to come into this game looking to get Gurley the ball in space.
Kevin Minter has feasted against straight-ahead runners, but struggled against more fluid athletes like Gurley. Minter has established himself as an every-down player more in the role of Larry Foote than Karlos Dansby; he’ll have his hands full keeping the prodigious talents of Gurley from getting into the second level.
Greg Robinson, OT vs. Calais Campbell, DE
Sometimes it’s just great to see two enormous men go at it. Greg Robinson was probably drafted too high at 2nd overall, but he’s become the left tackle that Leonard Davis was before him.
Campbell tends to play all across the line, but he may have plenty of opportunities to go mano-a-mano against the Rams best offensive lineman, who still may need a year of seasoning.
Robert Quinn, DE vs. Jermaine Gresham, TE
Pro Football Reference says that one of Robert Quinn’s nicknames is “Black Lightning.” So, that’s kind of lame. What’s not lame is Robert Quinn’s combination of speed and power. Quinn has 9 sacks in 8 career games against the Cards, but Jared Veldheer was able to contain him last year. Gregg Williams is likely to bring pressure up the middle to maximize opportunities for Aaron Donald. That is likely to mean slide protections.
Historically, the Cards have been happy to allow their tight ends to go 1-on-1 with even very good edge rushers. Jermaine Gresham has receiving ability, but viewers of Hard Knocks know that he also takes a lot of pride in his abilities as a blocker. The Cards are going to depend on Gresham to do more than chip against the All-Pro.