NFC West: St. Louis Rams

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The San Diego Chargers announced Tuesday evening that they will remain in San Diego for the 2015 NFL season.

In making the announcement via a statement from Mark Fabiani, the team's point person on stadium efforts and special counsel to Chargers president Dean Spanos, the Chargers made it clear that they are still working toward finding a solution to stay in San Diego for the long haul.

[+] EnlargeQualcomm Stadium
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers' announcement that they will remain in San Diego next season is good for the prospects of the Rams staying put at least another season too.
"Today, the Chargers are making the same announcement that the team has made each year since 2007: The team will not be exercising the lease termination clause and will keep working to find a publicly acceptable way to build a Super Bowl-quality stadium in San Diego," Fabiani said in the statement. "Calendar year 2015 will constitute the team's fourteenth year of work on a San Diego stadium solution."

That announcement and the proclamations from Fabiani left many St. Louis Rams fans hoping and wishing for something similar or at the very least a declaration that the team would stay put in 2015 to come from owner Stan Kroenke or one of his proxies. While that hasn't happened -- at least not yet -- there are plenty of signs pointing to no team moving to Los Angeles in 2015. That includes the Rams.

Why? Well, the theory goes that the Chargers wouldn't so boldly and outwardly forfeit their leverage on the Los Angeles situation without some sort of knowledge that nobody would be moving to Los Angeles in time for the 2015 season. San Diego has long claimed that about a fourth of its season-ticket holders come from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas and that another team moving into the city would be detrimental to its business.

Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times offered similar thoughts in a column Tuesday night. And the New York Times reported earlier this week that the chances of a team moving in 2015 had "dimmed."

In that report, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted as saying that nothing was imminent on the Los Angeles front. Which brings us to the question of timing on the Chargers' statement. In connecting those dots, one would think that San Diego received strong signals that the league would not allow anybody to head to Los Angeles in 2015. Hence Tuesday's announcement.

How that was conveyed still remains unclear at this particular moment but reading the tea leaves here shouldn't be that difficult. Could Rams owner Stan Kroenke or Raiders owner Mark Davis still file for relocation in February? Sure, but it seems increasingly clear that the NFL is and will continue to control this process. Going rogue against the league has been done before but would seem unnecessary given that the Los Angeles market would still be in play beyond next year.

As for St. Louis, Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz, the task force appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, continue to work on possible proposals for an NFL stadium. In the New York Times report, it was mentioned that Peacock met with Eric Grubman, the league's point person on Los Angeles, recently.

And for what it's worth, the Rams have already begun accepting deposits for 2015 season tickets on their website.

There remain plenty of unknowns when it comes to the Rams' long-term future in St. Louis and though there may be a bit of short-term clarity forthcoming, it's best to buckle up and remember that it's all far from over.

Rams need to look at O-line personnel

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner talks about the team playing younger offensive linemen to assess their talent level.

QB snapshot: Shaun Hill

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
A quick observation of quarterback Shaun Hill and how he played in the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15:

After helping the Rams to wins in three of his first four starts since returning to the top job, Hill struggled mightily against Arizona's stout defense. Hill didn't get much help in the way of protection as the Cardinals pressured him on 28 percent of his 43 dropbacks.

True to its personality, Arizona brought the blitz on 48.8 percent of those dropbacks and got to him for two sacks. But whether it was the Cardinals' blitz or the simple threat of it, Hill was skittish as the pocket around him broke down repeatedly. The right side of the offensive line, in particular, was mostly overmatched by Arizona's front.

Against Arizona's standard pass rush -- four rushers or fewer -- Hill was 8-of-18 for 123 yards with two sacks and an interception. He finished the game 20-of-39 for 229 yards with no touchdowns and an interception for a QBR of 22.4. That's his lowest QBR as a starter for the Rams.

Despite the struggles of the Rams' offense, St. Louis had an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. Hill missed receiver Stedman Bailey on third-and-3 at the Arizona 43. What should have been an easy completion for a first down and probably more fell incomplete, and the Rams' drive died a play later.

"He [Bailey] had running room," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He had a lot of space if he catches that ball. It’s a high throw, Shaun missed him, but that was a potential big play for us.”

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Last week, we took a cursory look at St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's case to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year, with strong words of support from coach Jeff Fisher.

Donald notched his fifth sack in as many games on Thursday night against Arizona, giving him eight on the season. He leads all rookies in that category and is tied for third among all defensive tackles in that category. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald's 33 "stops" (plays that are considered an offensive failure including sacks) is tied for the most among defensive tackles and, for what it's worth, his grade of 32.4 overall is also first at the position.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAaron Donald leads all rookies with eight sacks.
Clearly, Donald already has a compelling case to win the award but that doesn't mean he's guaranteed to win it. That's especially true considering that Donald doesn't play a position where it's easy to rack up big statistics. I would argue that makes what Donald has done even more impressive but simply looking at raw numbers could work against him.

With that in mind, here's a look at some of Donald's competitors and how they have performed:

San Francisco LB Chris Borland -- He was a tackling machine at Wisconsin, and he has been one for the 49ers since stepping into the starting lineup. Borland has 99 tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and two pass breakups all while playing fewer snaps than the others listed here. He's also chipped in on special teams. He's a stout run defender but hasn't offered much in the way of splash plays or pass rush. He's going to be a headache for the Rams in the NFC West for years to come, but he probably doesn't have the overall resume to win the award.

Baltimore LB C.J. Mosley -- Mosley is a big, physical tackling machine with 117 stops, three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two interceptions and five pass breakups. Mosley has been excellent against the run and solid rushing the passer and been a major boon to a Baltimore defense that has undergone a major makeover in the past two seasons. He's probably the leader in the clubhouse right now because he has been so consistent over the course of the entire season.

Oakland LB Khalil Mack -- In terms of pure numbers, Mack probably falls short to the others listed here but, like Donald, numbers don't tell the whole story when it comes to the rookie out of Buffalo. Mack has 68 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and three pass breakups. Mack is already the best player on Oakland's defense but that hasn't meant much for a team that has struggled as much as the Raiders. He's a dominant run defender and has created plenty of pressure even when it hasn't resulted in sacks. He might be the favorite among those who closely watch the tape, but his numbers might not stack up when it's all said and done.

Minnesota LB Anthony Barr -- Barr's resume bears a striking resemblance to Mack as he has posted 70 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and a touchdown. In fact, Barr has probably had more splash plays than the others listed here, but he also hasn't been quite as consistent. He has been just OK in coverage and his run defense has been about average, but it's important to note he's doing it as a 4-3 outside linebacker.

Right now, this race is probably too close to call with the final two weeks offering everybody a chance to make a strong closing argument. Donald and Borland have played fewer snaps than the others, which could work against them in terms of sample size but for them considering their production per snap.

If Donald can get a sack in each of the final two games to finish the year with one in each of the final seven games and get to 10 on the season, it could be enough to earn him the award.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Before the season started, the St. Louis Rams set out to be a physical, grind-it-out type of team capable of lining up, powering up and running right at opponents.

Fourteen games in, that approach hasn't materialized, and it's come back to bite the Rams on multiple occasions, including Thursday night's 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

And nowhere has the Rams' lack of power running been more evident than their feeble attempts to get the tough yards that keep the chains moving. In the loss to the Cardinals, the Rams had a couple of key third- and fourth-down situations and came up empty on all of them.

On their first drive, the Rams had third-and-goal at Arizona's 1 but running back Benny Cunningham was stopped for no gain, leaving the Rams to settle for a field goal. With that in mind in the fourth quarter, the Rams decided to eschew the run on third-and-goal at the Cardinals' 1, which led to an incompletion and, once again, settling for a field goal.

For the season, the Rams are converting 54.5 percent of their third-and-1 opportunities, tied for last in the NFL. On third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 this season, the Rams are averaging just 1.09 yards per carry, which is the worst output in the league in those situations.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher makes no bones about his team's need to improve when it comes picking up the tough yards, especially on the ground.

“We’ve got to get better at it," Fisher said. "We need to be able to line up and say, ‘Here we come. This is what we’re running. Stop it.’ We’re not there yet.”

Because of the Rams' struggles running in short-yardage situations, they actually haven't been bad throwing it in those spots. On third-and-1 and fourth-and-1, the Rams are averaging 9.33 yards per pass attempt, seventh best in the NFL, and have a total QBR of 82.4, which is fourth best in the league.

But now that the Rams have enough evidence of struggling in those spots, opposing defenses are looking for the pass more, which explains why the Cardinals were all over the third-down play at the goal line in the fourth quarter and quarterback Shaun Hill essentially had to throw it away.

"They’re loading the line of scrimmage as far as the run game’s concerned," Fisher said. "We thought our best opportunities were doing just what we did. We didn’t make plays. We have to do much better there."
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is known for his gruff exterior and brutal honesty.

It's been considered one of the reasons that it took him so long to get a head coaching job. But Arians won't hesitate to let you know where he stands, so it shouldn't have been a surprise when he didn't mince words in his postgame news conference after the Cardinals beat the St. Louis Rams 12-6 on Thursday night.

Arians' comments rankled some Rams fans who felt like he needlessly took a couple of shots at the Rams. Did he need to do that? No, probably not. But I also don't think he was trying to do anything but get his 11-3 team the respect it deserves.

I wrote a little about this in the Ram-blings on Friday morning, but I wanted to revisit in light of some of the anger I've seen from Rams fans. Here's the comments from Arians with my take on each:

Arians quote: "I love it when nobody says that you will have a chance to win," Arians said. "There is an 11-3 team, and a team that is always 8-8. You figure it out."

My thoughts: Arians is understandably upset by the lack of respect his team is getting. They are leading the NFC and entered Thursday's games as underdogs. Obviously that isn't the Rams' fault, but Arians was making a larger point here that whenever his team wins, there's always an excuse for how it happened instead of credit being given. And, really, Arians is being generous. The Rams haven't had more than seven wins since 2006 and have only been 8-8 twice since 2003. However, Jeff Fisher has a long history of mediocrity on his coaching record, including five .500 finishes while coaching the Houston/Tennessee franchise. Maybe Arians could have made his point in a different way, but he was speaking truth here and his overall point about being an underdog to a team that was 6-7 entering the game while his team had 10 wins and a victory over the Rams is valid.

Arians quote: "Everybody wanted to say how great their defense is, but I think they saw a good defense tonight and it was in red and white," Arians said. "I am very proud of our guys."

My thoughts: This was a little bit more head-scratching. Arians' offense only mustered 12 points and had just 274 yards of offense. The Cardinals defense did outplay the Rams' defense but it's not like the Rams defense was any sort of slouch. Again, this seems to go back to Arians' perception of a lack of respect. The Rams defense was getting a lot of credit going into the game, credit it earned beyond the scope of a two-game shutout streak (this is the same defense that completely shut down Denver's high powered offense) but the point Arians clearly wanted to make was that his defense deserves some attention, too.

All things considered, this is all relatively harmless. If you were one of those laughing last week when Fisher had some fun at Washington's expense with his coin-toss captains and then doubled down when asked about it the next day, you can't then complain when another coach tosses a mostly accurate barb in your direction.

Arians and the Cardinals have done an amazing job of overcoming injuries, suspensions and all sorts of adversity this season and should be commended for it. If he wants to get his guys a little more love, more power to him.

Besides, the NFC West already has plenty of fun rivalries, so why not add one more? It's a safe bet that Fisher will store Arians' comments away for when the teams meet again in 2015. He's probably even already picked out No. 88 Lance Kendricks as one of his coin-toss captains.

W2W4 revisited: St. Louis Rams

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Looking back at three things to watch from the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night:

1. Sacking Stanton: The Rams pass rush had been rolling entering the game, but the Cardinals found the recipe to help slow them down. St. Louis finished with just one sack, though it was able to generate pressure plenty of other times to force incompletions or flush quarterbacks Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley from the pocket. Still, with the Cardinals working with a banged-up offensive line, it was a letdown performance for a Rams defense that had 13 sacks combined in the previous two weeks.

2. Big-play chances: Quarterback Shaun Hill had been pretty good throwing down the field since becoming the starter again, but he struggled mightily against Arizona. Hill was 4-of-13 on passes traveling at least 10 yards in the air against the Cardinals, with no touchdowns and an interception (a late heave) while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. In Weeks 11 to 14, Hill had been completing 50 percent of such passes with an average of 13.9 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The inability to hit on some big plays, while the Cardinals landed a few, set Arizona up for a couple of field goals. The Rams' inability to do it left them trying to scrap for every yard.

3. Stick to the formula: The Rams have found success this year when they don't turn the ball over and/or win the turnover battle. It had been a simple formula as they were 4-0 going into Thursday night when they don't have any giveaways and they had not lost a game when they had a positive turnover differential. That theory held true against Arizona, but not in the way the Rams would have wanted. Running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble in Rams territory that led directly to one of the Cardinals' field goals. On the other side, the Rams missed a few golden opportunities to get a takeaway of their own, including a near-miss of an interception by cornerback Janoris Jenkins and a forced fumble the Rams were unable to come up with. It was minus-two, including Hill's late heave, but it was enough to help tip the scales to Arizona.
ST. LOUIS -- After two weeks of playing in the flyweight division, the St. Louis Rams stepped back up in class Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome. But they didn't stop at middleweight or welterweight along the way. They jumped directly into a heavyweight slugfest.

And for four quarters, the Rams mostly stood toe to toe with the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals. Ultimately, the Cardinals landed about three more punches on their way to a 12-6 decision that once again proved that when the Rams play good teams, they have next to no margin for error.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonArizona's Michael Floyd got the better of Rams CB Janoris Jenkins on several key plays Thursday night.
"Playing this team, you know that they have got a good defense," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "So typically you go into a football game and you say, 'Hey, we have got to hold a team to under 17 points.' But I have been raised under the thought process of my coaches in college and even here that if we get six, we've got to hold them to three. They made more plays than we did tonight. I think our defense played well, but we didn't play well enough to win this football game."

That statement isn't limited to the defense. Facing an Arizona defense that has been among the best in the league this season, the Rams' offense sputtered throughout most of the game and mounted a charge only in the waning moments. By then, it was too late. But it was too late because of three plays that went Arizona's way and provided the Cardinals with nine gift-wrapped points.

After jumping to an early 3-0 lead, the Rams got a stop and had the ball with a chance to extend their advantage. Instead, running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble after he failed to secure the ball, giving the Cardinals prime field position at the Rams' 27.

"There's really no excuse for a fumble," Mason said. "I'll never give an excuse for a fumble, no matter how it happened. That's my job as a running back to hold on to the ball."

The defense was up to the task of holding Arizona to Chandler Catanzaro's 23-yard field goal, but those points gave the Cardinals an instant shot of momentum. The kick also ended the Rams' streak of 86 unanswered points dating to the Nov. 23 loss to San Diego -- 144 minutes, 41 seconds of game time.

On a night when the Rams were unable to get a takeaway, it was the game's lone turnover. Every cliché about the importance of turnovers is on the money with this team: The Rams are 4-0 this season when they don't have a giveaway and are winless when they have a negative turnover differential.

"You credit the defense from the standpoint of sudden change going out there and getting the field goal," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "But when you turn the ball over deep in your territory like that, they're going to get points. That was unfortunate for us. And then we just didn't get our hands on balls."

While the Rams' defense was again able to keep an opponent out of the end zone, it also had a couple of costly hiccups, the type of big-play miscues that resulted in six more points for Arizona -- the final margin of victory.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who has been no stranger to being on the wrong end of big plays, allowed a 49-yard completion to receiver Michael Floyd in the second quarter and was later flagged for defensive pass interference that covered 36 yards.

Both plays put Arizona in St. Louis territory. Though the defense again kept the Cardinals out of the end zone each time, Catanzaro had two more field goals following those plays. Those six points plus the three after Mason's fumble directly led to nine points. Considering that the Rams scored six, that was the difference in the game.

"I should have made the play; it's over with," Jenkins said. "It's frustrating, but at the same time, you can't point fingers. You've just got to move on to the next week."

Guided by Shaun Hill, the Rams' offense has proved capable of getting the job done against lesser opponents, but a division foe with a passion for blitzing was too much for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer & Co. to overcome. The Rams mustered just 280 yards of offense, only 69 on the ground, and were 4-for-15 on third down.

Once the Cardinals increased their lead to 12-3, it seemed the Rams would need points from their defense or special teams to close the gap.

"We kept saying it," Laurinaitis said. "It's our goal every week, regardless of the game, to score on defense. We put those standards on ourselves. We didn't get that play. That's the difference. They got a fumble, and we didn't get one. It's the little things, and it just seemed like they got it today."

It's a refrain that's become all too familiar in St. Louis, where the 6-8 Rams now face the certainty of an 11th straight year without a winning record.

ST. LOUIS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss against the Arizona Cardinals:

Taking the points: With 6:10 to go in the game, the Rams found themselves facing a fourth-and-goal at Arizona's 1. It was the first real sign of life for the offense since its opening drive and the Rams trailed 12-3 at the time. Rams coach Jeff Fisher had a choice to make: take the field goal, make it a one-possession game and try to get a stop on defense or go for it knowing that you might not get so close to pay dirt again.

Fisher chose the former, and given a little time to think about it, he had no regrets about doing so.

"We needed points," Fisher said. "If I go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1 1/2 and don't get it, we're in trouble. We needed points, so we elected to get the points there and use the timeouts and the two-minute warning and you get a solid field position change down by six."

Britt's encouragement: As you'd imagine, the Rams' locker room was a somber place but for anyone wondering receiver Kenny Britt's place on the team, you need only to see what he was doing after the game. With downtrodden teammates hanging their heads, Britt walked one by one to each locker and offered a hug and some words of encouragement to every teammate.

Getting it right: Fisher has been known to direct his ire at officials after some brutal calls have gone against his team this year but he didn't have any beef with the late Janoris Jenkins interception that was overturned after a replay review. Jenkins said he thought he had it and that the ground can't cause a fumble, but Fisher said from his perspective it's a call the officials got right.

Rapid Reaction: St. Louis Rams

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 12-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Rams' mini-streak of two wins and their shutout streak of more than nine quarters came to an end in a game whose result guaranteed that another Rams streak will continue. Of course, the one that will live on isn't nearly as appealing for the Rams and their fans. In dropping to 6-8 on the season, the Rams guaranteed that they will once again come up short of a winning record. They haven't had one of those since 2003 and need to win their final two games to finish 8-8. The Rams' defense did what it could to keep the team in the game, but it had a pair of costly hiccups that led directly to points for the Cardinals. Of more concern was an offense that did next to nothing aside from its first possession and had a fumble that set up Arizona's first field goal. Simply put, the Rams aren't good enough to overcome turnovers on offense and big plays allowed on defense against good teams.

Stock watch: Down -- The offense: There was plenty of discussion about the Rams' defensive success the past two weeks being tied directly to facing struggling opponents like Oakland and Washington. The reality is it was the offense that was providing the smoke and mirrors. With a top defense in town, the Rams looked like they had never seen a blitz before and mustered only 280 yards for the game. Running back Tre Mason coughed up a fumble that gave Arizona points. And, until a 38-yard completion to Stedman Bailey with about 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Rams didn't have a first down in the second half.

Shutout streak ends: The way the Rams' defense and Arizona's offense had played entering the game, it was fair to wonder how or when somebody would score some points against the Rams. So, it was no coincidence that the first points they allowed in more than nine quarters came as a direct result of Mason's fumble in Rams territory. The streak ended after 144 minutes, 41 seconds, and the 86 unanswered points the Rams scored during it is the most by a team during a shutout streak since the Buffalo Bills also had 86 unanswered in 1992.

Game ball: The defense -- The margin for error was next to none for this group and it had a couple of costly mistakes, but it's unrealistic to expect it to pitch shutouts every week. The defense kept the Rams close despite getting next to no help from the offense. The Rams will lament the near misses for takeaways, namely a late fumble by Arizona running back Kerwynn Williams and two potential interceptions that went through the hands of cornerback Janoris Jenkins. But you can't blame a group that limited an opponent to 12 points.

What's next: The Rams wrap up the home portion of their schedule on Dec. 21 against the New York Giants before closing the season with a trip to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Seattle Seahawks.

Cardinals vs. Rams preview

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
When: 8:25 p.m. ET, Thursday. Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis. TV: NFL Network.

A lot has changed for the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals since they last met Nov. 9. Little more than a month later, both teams are employing different starting quarterbacks and seem to be trending in opposite directions.

It’s probably too little too late for the Rams to make the playoffs, and the Cardinals will probably find a way to hang in and make the postseason, but either way it should make for an interesting matchup.

Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss discuss Thursday night’s contest:

Wagoner: Obviously, things have changed a lot since the last time these two played. The Cardinals have had a couple of losses, not that there's any shame in losing a game or two after starting 9-1, but do you still see this team as a real contender?

Weinfuss: It really depends on the day. But for the most part, I do. I think this defense is good enough to carry Arizona deep into the playoffs, especially with how well the pass rush has developed during the past five games. However, that won’t be enough in my opinion. The special teams hasn’t been consistent all season and the offense doesn’t look up to speed. Arizona is hoping that kicker Chandler Catanzaro got his misses out of the way Sunday, when he clanged two kicks off the goal posts. The kick return game is ranked 32nd in the NFL despite a better showing by Ted Ginn Jr. against the Chiefs. That has led to poor starting field position, which is the last thing this offense needs right now. Drew Stanton has been good at times but then he’ll quickly show why he hasn’t been a starter in this league before. He has been playing with fire lately, coming too close to throwing interceptions for Bruce Arians' liking. As long as he doesn’t turn the ball over, Arizona will continue to contend.

This is some run the Rams are on right now, even though they’ve beaten up on the Raiders and Redskins. How much stock are they putting in 76-0 and 13 sacks in two games? Are those two stats a product of their opponents, or has the Rams’ defense finally become what so many of us in the media expected it to be?

Wagoner: Let’s be clear, there’s no doubt the Rams feasted on a couple of bad opponents. That is part of the equation, but my contention is that it’s a small part. The Rams of old didn’t used to dominate teams that many would view as inferior. Just a year ago, the Rams took Seattle to the wire on "Monday Night Football" then turned around and lost at home to Tennessee. So while you can count the quality of opponents against them, it’s a disservice to the job the defense has done because it’s not just been the past two weeks. This defensive run has gone back much further. As one small example, the Rams have kept three of their past four opponents from even taking a snap inside their 20-yard line. Two of those opponents were Washington and Oakland. The other? The Denver Broncos. The Rams have proved they can play with any team in the league, especially on defense. They are right now what we thought they would be and maybe even a little bit better.

Both teams have changed quarterbacks since the previous meeting. Arizona by injury, St. Louis by choice. Now that Drew Stanton knows he's the man for the rest of the season do you think it has helped him because he doesn't have to wonder when he'll be replaced? Or has it exposed weaknesses?

Weinfuss: In response to your first question, I think that knowing he's that man has gone both ways. Here’s why: It has helped him because he knows, going forward, the responsibility is on his shoulders and all the work he’s putting in in practice and all the time he’s spending with receivers will pay off in the long run because he knows he'll be the one making the throws. But at the same time I get the sense that he played a little looser knowing he wasn’t going to be relied upon to be out there every week. He could play a little freer knowing he was the short-term solution instead of the long-term answer. There’s definitely an added stress knowing you’re in charge of a team’s playoffs hopes -- especially one that had potential to end in a Super Bowl run. I think parts of Stanton’s game have been exposed, such as his inconsistency, because there’s more of a sample size for teams to study.

The Rams have won three of their past four with Shaun Hill at quarterback. He’s averaging more yards per attempt, has a higher touchdown-to-interception ratio and has a higher passer rating than Austin Davis. What has it been about Hill the second-time around that clicked for the Rams’ offense?

Wagoner: The formula really isn’t that complicated and nobody can attest to that more than the Cardinals. Hill has had zero turnovers in those three Rams victories. He turned it over in their lone loss to San Diego, including a back-breaker at the goal line near the end of regulation. When Hill takes care of the ball with the defense playing the way it is, the Rams are well-positioned to win. It’s a relatively small sample size, but Hill has never had three consecutive starts without a turnover in his career. If he can do it against Arizona, that would make it three in a row. The other thing that he has done well is take advantage of opportunities to throw deep when they’ve come up. Hill has a QBR of 98 when throwing 15 or more yards down the field. The combination of ball security and hitting big plays when the chances arise has been the biggest difference between Hill and Davis.

I see the Cardinals have shuffled the offensive line a little bit. With the Rams' pass rush firing on all cylinders at the moment, do you see this offensive line being in a good spot to slow them down?

Weinfuss: Parts of it, yes. I think the interior of the line could struggle. Because of an injury to right guard Paul Fanaika, former left guard Ted Larsen moved to the right side while Jonathan Cooper made his much-anticipated return to the field at left guard. Cooper is still trying to figure out his way on the offensive line after not playing last season and sporadically this year. But he’s fresh and he’s quick, so as long as he can stay in front of Michael Brockers he could be OK. But the Cardinals’ tackles have been playing very well lately, which will make Thursday’s matchup between them and Chris Long and Robert Quinn among the most exciting on the field.

These two offenses are quite similar -- almost identical in some categories -- but turnovers, both forced and made, have become the difference. How does the Rams’ offense cut down on turnovers to make sure they can keep this game close?

Wagoner: They’ve done it by making the change at quarterback. Seriously, that has been the biggest difference. They are 4-0 this year in games they have zero giveaways and they haven’t lost a game when they’ve had a positive turnover margin this season. Conversely, they’ve lost every game in which they’ve had a negative turnover differential. The games where it has been a draw on turnovers have gone either way. I know pointing to turnovers is cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason: Because it’s true. If you remember the costly turnovers in the first meeting, one was a deep throw by Davis that he didn’t get enough on. Hill has more arm strength, and when he misses on deep balls, it’s usually an overthrow. He’s also more aware and adept at handling pressure, something Davis struggled with. In winning three of their past four, the Rams are plus-8 in turnover margin. If they are to beat Arizona, they’ll need that trend to continue.

Rams-Cardinals: Matchup breakdown

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A look at three individual matchups to keep an eye on when the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals meet at 8:25 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers vs. Cardinals left guard Ted Larsen/Jonathan Cooper

The Cardinals are banged up on the offensive line with Fanaika dealing with an ankle sprain since Week 13 and far from a certainty to play this week. If Fanaika is out, the normal left guard Ted Larsen will replace him on the right side forcing Cooper into the lineup. In fact, it's probably a better bet that Cooper will make his second consecutive start. Cooper was the highly-touted guard prospect from North Carolina in 2013 who missed the season with a knee injury and has still be working his way to the starting lineup. Against Kansas City last week, Arizona coach Bruce Arians said Cooper was 'OK' but mentioned that he'd been pushed backwards about 10 times.

In Brockers, Cooper (or Larsen) would be drawing the most favorable matchup of any of the Cardinals offensive linemen. That's not to say Brockers is a pushover so much as it's better than having to deal with the likes of Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald. But Brockers has played much better in recent weeks, particularly against the run and he's a big, powerful sort who could give the athletic but smaller Cooper some issues. The Cardinals are going to have their hands full upfront but their line has been much improved in 2014. Brockers versus Fanaika or Cooper isn't the draw of other matchups upfront but it could be an important one in determining the outcome.

Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines vs. Cardinals receiver John Brown

The Rams defense is playing so well right now that it seems the only way to really beat them is to get a big play. Well, few players in the league have a knack for the big play like Brown. The Rams found that out first hand in the first meeting between the teams when Brown made a spectacular diving catch for a 48-yard touchdown that was ultimately the game winner. Brown has made a habit of those big plays in his rookie season though his production has tailed off a bit since that big catch against St. Louis.

The Rams, meanwhile, are getting much better production out of their secondary lately in part because they're finally healthy. With Trumaine Johnson back, the Rams have been using Gaines as the starter at left cornerback but kicking him inside in the nickel. That's where Gaines could see plenty of Brown this time around. Brown beat safety Rodney McLeod for the touchdown in Arizona but Gaines is a reliable cover type who hasn't allowed many big plays this year.

It's unlikely the Rams can continue to pitch shutouts but if they want another one, they'll need Gaines to be on point against Brown.

Rams tight end Jared Cook vs. Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon

I wanted to avoid repeats from the first matchup here but I'm making an exception for this one considering Cook's success against the Cardinals in that meeting. Cook had two catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in that game and Arizona continues to struggle to cover tight ends consistently.

Even before that, Cook had a big game in the 2013 season opener when he torched Arizona to the tune of seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He would have had three scores if not for an amazing play by Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to force a fumble just before Cook crossed the goal line. Regardless, Arizona was one of the worst teams in the league last year defending tight ends which led directly to the selection of Bucannon.

Bucannon has been used primarily in the nickel and dime for the Cardinals but has flashed the potential to help in a variety of ways. He had his first career fumble recovery in Week 8 against Philadelphia and has 39 tackles and two passes defended so far in his rookie season. With Mathieu out because of a thumb injury and cornerback Antonio Cromartie battling an ankle issue, the Cardinals figure to have some question marks in the secondary. That could mean any plans to help slow Cook might have to be altered to help elsewhere.

W2W4: St. Louis Rams

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Cardinals kick off Week 15 on Thursday at the Edward Jones Dome. Kickoff is set for 8:25 p.m. ET on NFL Network.

Here are three things to watch from the Rams' perspective:

1. Sacking Stanton: Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton has had his ups and downs since taking over for Carson Palmer, but all told he's 4-3 as the starter. Still, Stanton's home/road splits are pretty glaring and he's entering an extremely difficult situation against a Rams' pass rush that is every bit as ferocious right now as it was expected to be at the beginning of the season. The Rams have 34 sacks since Week 7, most in the league in that time and have seen their rank in total sacks go from last in the league to tied for seventh in that time. Making matters more complicated for Arizona is the fact Jonathan Cooper is still settling in as the starter at left guard with Paul Fanaika and left tackle Jared Veldheer battling ankle injuries. Stanton is 3-0 with an 80.7 QBR at home but those numbers fall to 1-3 with a 34.2 QBR when the Cardinals travel.

2. Big-play chances: Quarterback isn't the only position with a new look for the Cardinals since the Rams last played them. Arizona is dealing with even more injury issues in the secondary, having since lost Tyrann Mathieu to a thumb injury and cornerback Antonio Cromartie now dealing with an ankle issue. Mathieu is out for Thursday night and Cromartie's situation is more unclear, but either way, it could open some opportunities for the Rams to make some big plays in the passing game. That's been something quarterback Shaun Hill has done pretty well since he's been starting. For the season, Hill is 13-of-27 on passes traveling at least 15 yards in the air for 369 yards, two touchdowns and one interceptions for a QBR of 98.3. Those big plays have often gone to receiver Kenny Britt in recent weeks, but tight end Jared Cook and receiver Stedman Bailey have also been in on the action. Arizona's secondary had a big day against the Rams in the first meeting but with Hill under center, St. Louis should be better equipped to take care of the ball and make some plays in the passing game.

3. Stick to the formula: Speaking of taking care of the ball, I see no reason to change what's working for the Rams in recent weeks. The formula isn't hard to figure out. Don't turn the ball over, take the ball away and you are in great position to win. The Rams didn't have any turnovers in Washington last week and improved to 4-0 on the season when they don't give it away. That's not a coincidence. The defense, meanwhile, continues to come up with takeaways. Turnovers made the difference in the first meeting between these teams and ultimately landed Austin Davis a spot on the bench. If Hill can eliminate those mistakes, the Rams will be well positioned to get the win.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Since the St. Louis Rams' defense began rolling in recent weeks, a common question has been 'How are they doing it?' The reality is there isn't any one thing that you can point to for why a defense is playing how the Rams have played in the past seven or so games.

But while there are deeper answers to be found in things like understanding Gregg Williams' scheme and knowledge of opposing offenses, we can at least offer a reasonable starting point. For this group, everything its done defensively starts with doing a better job against the run. Not just a little better, either, but the type of significant improvement that has made them one of the hardest teams to run against in the league after a brutal start.

[+] EnlargeRams defense
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsThe Rams' improved rush defense has helped James Laurinaitis and Robert Quinn get to opposing QBs more effectively.
A Rams defense that was tied for 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (152.5) through the first five weeks has made enough strides that it now sits 10th in the league at 104.7.

“I think as you move through the middle part of the season into the fall that’s what our emphasis is," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Not that we don’t emphasize it early in the season, but it is. You have to run the ball and stop the run to have success."

It's no coincidence the Rams are having more success in the win column now that they are finding ways to stop the run. Since Week 6, the Rams are allowing 83.56 yards rushing per game -- the fourth-best run defense in the league in that time.

Taking it a step further, the Rams have allowed just 3.76 yards per carry, which is sixth best in the league and down from 4.92 in the first five weeks. Along the way, they have posted some truly dominant performances against the run.

Save for a hiccup against San Diego in which the Chargers rushed for 128 yards, the Rams have not yielded more than 61 yards in any of their past five games. In those four contests, the Rams gave up 28 to Arizona and Denver, 61 to Oakland and 27 on Sunday to Washington. During that stretch of five games, they've given up 3.13 yards per carry with San Diego the only team able to average more than 2.9 yards per rush.

The improved run defense has been the foundation of the Rams having more success elsewhere within the defense, namely the pass rush. When teams were running at will on the Rams early in the season, they rarely threw the ball and when they did, it was coming out quick. In the first four games, opponents averaged 27.25 dropbacks per game and 31 rushing attempts per game.

Since, the rush attempts have dropped to 22.2 per game with dropbacks up to 43.7 drop backs per game. More passes equals more chances to rush the passer which has, in turn, yielded more sacks. After posting just one sack in the first six weeks, the Rams have 34 since, which is the most in the NFL in that time. They've gone from 32nd in sacks to a tie for seventh.

"When you are able to stop the run, it allows our D-linemen to go to work," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "I think early in the season teams were just running the football and throwing the quick game, so when that happens I don’t care how freakish Robert Quinn is and Aaron Donald and the rest of the guys, you’ve got to be able to stop the run."

Now that the Rams are doing that, everything else is falling into place.

Rams improvement starts with stopping run

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10

ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner talks about how stopping the run has helped other areas of the defense.