Despite losing Stanton, Cardinals get it done with ugly win over Rams
As is often the case with these Thursday night games, the Week 15 matchup between Arizona and St. Louis devolved into an ugly, mistake-filled contest rife with punts and penalty flags.
Three thoughts on Arizona's 11th win of the season:
1. The Cardinals are (almost) in the playoffs, but ...
Unless the Eagles and Cowboys play to a tie on Sunday night, the Cardinals will clinch a postseason berth -- one season after sitting home with a 10-6 record. That in itself is a huge accomplishment, and they could clinch the NFC West with a win over Seattle next week.
Bruce Arians deserves to win the Coach of the Year honor, regardless of how these last two weeks play out. Arizona lost several key contributors in the offseason, had its starting quarterback drop with a season-ending injury and plays in arguably the toughest division in football, yet will carry the NFC's best record (or at least a share of it with Green Bay) into Week 16.
"We've been faced with a lot of adversity," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "Larry Foote said it a couple of weeks ago after the Atlanta loss: 'How are we going to face it? Every great team faces adversity and it was our turn to face it.'
"I think we're battling our way out of it. All the way back at OTAs, we talked about getting to the playoffs and getting a shot at the Super Bowl."
Here's the rub, though: How is Arizona going to score against that Seattle defense? Or at San Francisco the next week? Or in the playoffs?
That question was on the table already before Thursday night. In their first four games with Drew Stanton in for an injured Carson Palmer, the Cardinals averaged all of 13 points. They didn't even make it to that total against St. Louis, plus now face the prospect of being without Stanton.
Ryan Lindley, who was just signed off San Diego's practice squad when Palmer fell, did little beyond holding down the fort here. He finished 4 of 10 for 30 yards and a couple of near-interceptions.
The last time we saw Lindley in any prominent form before Thursday was in 2012, when he was pressed into starting duties for Arizona as a rookie. To put it mildly, he was awful. Lindley finished that year with zero touchdowns and seven interceptions.
He still may well be a better option than current rookie Logan Thomas, a fourth-round pick who probably needs several seasons under Arians' tutelage before he can be considered a legitimate option. Even that could be pushing it. To toss him into the mix now, with the division and conference titles on the line and the playoffs approaching, would be an incredible gamble.
"[We] went with Lindley over Thomas because of experience," Arians said afterward, a rather clear indicator of his forthcoming plans should Stanton miss time.
Arizona must keep winning as it did Thursday: with its dominant defense. The Cardinals have followed that same M.O. throughout Arians' tenure, but they never have been in as dire a situation on offense as they now face.
2. The Arizona offensive line deserves props
After a slow start to the 2014 season, the St. Louis pass rush had been terrorizing opposing QBs of late. The Rams sacked Washington's QBs seven times last week, got Oakland's Derek Carr six times in Week 13 and pressured Peyton Manning into a miserable effort on Nov. 16.
With Stanton (and then Lindley) at the helm for Arizona and the Cardinals' most productive running back, Andre Ellington, now on IR, the stage was set for the Rams' front to dominate again Thursday.
Arizona's O-line kept it from happening. Stanton, while hurried on a few occasions, was sacked just once -- the play on which he was injured. Lindley was rarely pressured when he dropped to throw. On top of that, the Cardinals' big uglies managed to pave the way for a 143-yard rushing effort, despite St. Louis loading up against the run for much of the game.
Those wins in the trenches were of particular importance as Arizona tried to ice away its win in the fourth quarter. Four straight Stepfan Taylor runs on the quarter's opening possession produced 27 yards and set up a key Catanzaro field goal. Later, Kerwynn Williams moved the sticks after St. Louis had pulled within six points.
Williams finished with 75 yards on 15 carries (a 5.0 yards-per-carry average); Taylor churned out 61 yards of his own.
On paper, the matchup of St. Louis' defensive line vs. Arizona's offensive line definitely favored the Rams. That's why they play the games.
3. A setback for St. Louis
This game was the Rams' outlook in a nutshell, complete with the glaring deficiencies at quarterback.
The defense, again, played well enough for St. Louis to win, despite failing to produce a turnover and being held to one sack. A couple of offseason tweaks could take this defense from playoff-worthy to an elite group.
Offensively, however, there is work to be done. It's no secret that St. Louis has to upgrade on Shaun Hill as its starting quarterback before truly considering itself a contender. Hill hung in Thursday -- his toughness is one of his best traits -- but there was not much else working for him. He and the Rams' pass-catchers miscommunicated more than once and, save a wobbly deep ball to Stedman Bailey, Hill was limited to underneath routes all night.
The offensive line deserves ample blame for the outcome, too. It really failed to make any adjustments to the Cardinals' aggressive blitz packages, with Powers coming unblocked off the edge to bat down Hill's fourth-down pass near midfield late. On the play prior to that incompletion, the Cardinals freed up a blitzer by rushing two and dropping their nose tackle into zone coverage. It was a call that left the Rams flustered multiple times Thursday.
This remains a flawed offensive unit, often held back further by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The Rams have played better recently than their 6-8 record indicates, but the offense looked the part of a sub-.500 team Thursday.