It’s never an optimum situation to have three offensive line starters potentially unavailable for any NFL game, much less one that is a matchup of 3-0 teams in the same division.
Yet, that’s what the Cardinals face as they prepare to travel to Los Angeles to play the Rams Sunday, possibly without right tackle Kelvin Beachum (ribs), right guard Justin Murray (back) and left guard Justin Pugh (back) not practicing.
Beachum suffered injured ribs in the season opener against Tennessee and missed most of the second half. He started in Week 2 against Minnesota, but exited at halftime.
Murray replaced him in those two games, but when Beachum was inactive for Sunday’s game against Jacksonville, right guard Josh Jones slid to right tackle and Murray was at right guard. However, Murray left the game late in the first half and was replaced by Max Garcia. Pugh was injured on Jamal Agnew’s 109-yard field-goal return and Sean Harlow, signed from the practice squad the day before the game, replaced Pugh.
All three injured players worked lightly together outside Thursday morning in the portion of practice open to the media. The Cardinals had 11 linemen in uniform, with five of those on the practice squad: Eric Smith, Shaq Calhoun, Michal Menet, Danny Isidora and Zack Johnson. The latter four have been signed in the last two days.
Sources told AllCardinals that Pugh is the closest of the trio to play, but this week appears to be a longshot.
If Beachum, Pugh and Murray can’t play Sunday, at least one and possibly two of those on the practice squad will likely be elevated to the roster for the game.
The tackles (D.J. Humphries and Jones) along with center Rodney Hudson are fine. The challenge will be the guards matching up against the Rams’ front that includes Aaron Donald.
Asked what makes Donald so effective, head coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “Yeah, I wish I knew because I’ve never seen anything like it on tape. And the guys I've talked to around the league that I respect, they say the same thing. There's no way to stop him. You just got to try and do things and neutralize him as best you can.”
While noting that the team has “to find a way to break through and play better against them offensively,” deep down Kingsbury knows how difficult that will be given the circumstances. He will likely have to design a plan that allows quarterback Kyler Murray to get the ball out quickly to his playmakers in space, while limiting turnovers.
In two games last season, the Rams had a pick-6 in each (one was off backup Chris Streveler) and after three games, Murray has the second-most interceptions (four) in the NFL.
While Donald is the most talked about Rams defender, Kingsbury claimed someone else is the team’s defensive MVP so far.
Asked about throwing in the direction of cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Kingsbury said, “You don't want to in the way they're using him as that nickel, a rover-type player. He’s been phenomenal to watch; the physicality he's playing with. Up to this point, he's their defensive MVP, when you see how he's affected games. He's been dominant on the perimeter, whether he's asked to cover or go and tackle, blow up screens. He's just been all over the place.”
With Raheem Morris taking over for Brandon Staley as defensive coordinator this season, Kingsbury was asked if there is much different in the Rams’ defense and how Ramsey is being utilized.
He said, “No, they did some similar things with him last year. But like I've mentioned earlier in the week, Raheem is doing a good job of really just evolving him more than where they took him last year. Those guys all know it (the defense) better. And they're playing at an even higher level.”
One piece of good news was that wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was back on the practice field Thursday. In Week 1, Hopkins had six receptions on eight targets for 83 yards (13.8 average) with a long of 38 and two touchdowns. In the first quarter of Week 2, he had four receptions on four targets for 54 yards (13.5) with a long of 16 and a touchdown.
However, at some point in the game, he injured his ribs and wasn’t targeted again. He didn’t practice all last week, but still played 61 of 67 snaps against Jacksonville. Targeted six times, he had only 21 yards on three receptions although a 29-yard play was negated by an offensive pass interference penalty on tight end Maxx Williams, who was deemed to have set an illegal pick. Hopkins didn’t practice Wednesday before returning Thursday.
Asked about getting the ball to Hopkins, Kingsbury said, “Teams have paid a lot of attention to him and that allows these other guys to have the days they had. But we have to continue to get him the ball and we will work on that this week. I was impressed with how he toughed through the week. I know he wasn't feeling perfect for sure, but he battled.”
Whatever the situation is on the line, Murray knows all eyes will be on him. And that’s the way he wants it.
Referencing the Rams defense as “one of the best in the league if not the best,” he said, “That in its own right is exciting. This is what I've always dreamt to do, is play quarterback in the NFL, and to get to do it at the highest level is a blessing.
“If you don't (feel that way), if you don't got that in you, then this game is not for you, especially this one that we're about to play. And this division, there's no shying away from it. You shy away from it, you're going to get eaten alive. And that's just how it is.”
When the current line makeup was mentioned to line coach/run game coordinator Sean Kugler, he said simply, “You roll with it and it's next man up. My father was a firefighter and (if) somebody goes down, you pick up the hose and you go. That's our mentality, the room has that mentality and they root for those guys. The guys that went into the game, you can see the excitement from the other guys that they're in there playing. So, if it happens to be that way this weekend, we're going to pick up the hose and we're going to go.”