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Some things I hope, I wonder and just know as the Cardinals and Rams prepare to play Sunday

Howard Balzer Avatar
November 9, 2022

I hope …

That everyone remembers after Sunday’s game what was said before it.

So much of the narrative, and deservedly so, will be centered around whether the Cardinals have any chance of preventing Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald from blowing up any chance the Cardinals have of playing consistent offense.

That would be hard enough with Justin Pugh, Rodney Hudson and Will Hernandez on the interior offensive line. But none of them will be on the field. Instead, it will be Cody Ford at left guard, Billy Price or Sean Harlow at center and Harlow, Max Garcia or Lecitus Smith at right guard.

As coach Kliff Kingsbury said Monday, “You’ve always got to have a plan there. He’s one of the most dominant players (in the NFL). Every game film you watch, he’s wrecking people’s game plans regardless of what type of plan they have for him, so we will have to make sure we know where he is at on every snap.”

Of course, knowing where he is and having a plan is the easy part. Blocking him is another matter.

As for remembering what was said, everyone figures the Cardinals will have major problems, but if they do, collective amnesia will likely set in and everything else like the play-calling or not making adjustments will be blamed instead of the obvious. There’s only so much a coach can do when the line looks like what the Cardinals have now.

I wonder …

What the debut episode of Hard Knocks will look like Wednesday night. The NFL Films crew has been taping for quite a while, and the Cardinals have lost four of their last five games to plummet to 3-6. Last season, the Colts were 5-5 when the first episode aired and they proceeded to win four of their next five, including a 41-15 road win at Buffalo in the debut show.

Along with the losing, surely cameras caught the sideline exchange between quarterback Kyler Murray and Kingsbury during the Thursday night game against New Orleans and then Sunday’s spat in the bench area with Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. How much of those encounters will be shown, as well as others we don’t know about?

Asked last week about seeing the first show, Kingsbury said, “I hate watching myself do anything, so I won’t watch it, but I am excited for fans to see the type of people we have. I know they do some behind the scenes with families and origin stories and things like that. We have some great stories on our team.”

As for whether the cameras have been an intrusion, he said, “No. They do a great job of kind of laying in the shadows and you don’t notice it much; almost to a fault. You’ll say some things that maybe could get you canceled and have to kind of give them the ‘OK, that’s out,’ but it doesn’t interrupt anything. They do a great job with it.”

Kingsbury hopes fans will be able to have an appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes especially when some of the narrative after losses is that the team was unprepared.

“I think they understand just how serious it is and how intense it can be; the X’s and O’s,” Kingsbury said. “Week in and week out, there’s a lot that goes into this and for them to be able to see that perspective in how much players put into it, the coaches put into it and why those games are so built up each and every week; I think that’s important.”

While Murray said “it’s fun” having the cameras around, he added, “You kind of ignore them unless you’re trying to say something crazy.”

Tight end Zach Ertz said, “We got some good guys, some funny guys. Hopefully, they’re able to show their true, true colors.”

He also said of the omnipresent cameras, “Sometimes you have hard conversations that you really don’t want to have in front of other people. Some things are meant to be kept private. And they’ve been respectful in that regard. Where you think it’s the time that you would like them not to be filming, you just kind of give them a signal. And they know that.

“But they’ve been really good. It’s very small staff, small crew. So they’ve been doing a good job of just maintaining their distance. And when you are mic’ed up, you just let people know. So everyone can be on their best behavior.”

I know …

And will never waver in the belief that productive, consistent offensive teams must have stability in the offensive line to be successful. I understand that many of you might be tired of me saying it, but that’s why I don’t focus only on the Cardinals when that is the subject.

Successful teams are looked at and usually they have significant consistency with the upfront players. Then, there are the struggling teams like the Cardinals and this week’s opponent, the Rams.

Rams coach Sean McVay has achieved a level of cache because of the team’s success in his tenure, but this season shows how fragile that can be after an excellent offensive line is decimated by injuries.

The Rams have had seven different line combinations with 11 players in eight games (the Cardinals have had six, but will have their seventh Sunday with their 11th different starter in Los Angeles) and last Sunday against Tampa Bay started their fifth right guard, Chandler Brewer. They also have five offensive lineman on reserve/injured.

McVay said Monday, “The challenging thing is that we’ve obviously had a lot of injuries centralized to certain spots. I do see positive glimpses, (but) it’s just about the consistency and the sustainability through four quarters. I thought there was some positive performances and encouraging things that we can move forward with, but there’s enough stuff that isn’t going the way that we want that you can’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re just this one thing away from being able to get it fixed.’”

This came following a game in which the Rams totaled 206 yards with 69 coming on one play and had eight three-and-outs. That was three more than the five the Cardinals had Sunday against Seattle.

Kingsbury was asked Monday about the difficulty of trying to game-plan and call plays while knowing the issues that exist on the line.

He said, “It’s been unfortunate that we’ve had so many injuries this year on that inside piece. Particularly, with guys coming in that weren’t with us in camp, guys that we signed either off different practice squads or traded for, trying to pick it up mid-season and then go out there and execute at a high level. I think they’ve battled so far and held up well enough to have us in games. We’ve just got to clean it up and execute at a higher level consistently throughout the game.”

Asked if he has any solace in the fact that the defending Super Bowl champs have many of the same problems and whose production has actually been worse than the Cardinals.

“I wouldn’t say solace,” he said. “I just think you understand that sometimes it is a battle of attrition and you’ve got to find ways to win games no matter what. It’s a tough league and it’s part of our job to figure out how to maximize the guys we’ve got out there.”

The reality is they might be able to “maximize” the players they have, but it’s still not good enough.

I hope …

That the NFL figures out a way to potentially review penalties for unnecessary roughness.

In the Cardinals loss to Seattle, linebacker Zaven Collins was flagged for the infraction after hitting wide receiver Tyler Lockett after a reception. The play came six plays after Collins had provided the Cardinals with a 14-10 lead following a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The catch was for 12 yards, which was enough for a first down on the third-and-12 play, but the penalty added 15 yards. That moved the ball to the Arizona 38-yard line and six plays later Lockett scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 9-yard pass play on which he clearly pushed safety Budda Baker to create separation.

On the Collins hit, because Lockett went low for the ball, when Collins lowered his shoulder, it was borderline whether he connected with Lockett’s shoulder or the side of his head.

For Collins’ part, he was shocked to be penalized.

He said, “I had no idea what the penalty was on because I hit him with my shoulder. And I know Tyler. He’s from Tulsa (where Collins is from), he went to Booker T. Washington (High School in Tulsa) and then he went to K-State. I don’t want to target anyone. It was an accident. Obviously, I didn’t mean to do that.”

Collins said he asked Lockett, “Did I target you, and he said, ‘I don’t think you did.’ I mean, the dude has the ball. And he sees me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Yeah, that sucked.”

Of course, the penalty wasn’t for targeting, a term not used in the NFL. If the contact was to the head, because it was simultaneous with the catch and Lockett never became a runner, the penalty could be justified. In addition, officials are instructed to err on the side of safety, so the flag was thrown.

That’s why it makes sense for replay to be utilized in all situations when that philosophy has often led to mistakes and potential game-changing penalties.

I wonder …

If wide receiver Robbie Anderson will have an impact on the offense at any point this season. It’s not surprising because anyone can only play fast when they know what they’re doing and not thinking.

When asked Monday whether he expected it to take time for Anderson to become comfortable in the offense, Kingsbury said, “It’s expected in season. There’s not a lot of time for teaching when you’re installing, trying to win games and so he’s done a good job. He’s been on it and studying hard. It’s just one thing to study it and know it, and then you go in a game, it’s full speed and (have to) execute at a high level.

“We’ll keep feeding him reps and and hopefully he gets comfortable here pretty quickly.”

I know …

That both the Cardinals and Rams are struggling mightily on first-down plays, which then leads to frequent second- and/or third-and-long attempts. For the season, the Cardinals are last in the NFL with a 4.38-yard average on first-down plays. The Rams are 29th at 4.95.

It was especially glaring for each team this past Sunday. Stay with me here for these awful numbers.

The Cardinals had 12 first-down plays in the first half for 35 yards and then 11 in the second half for minus-3 yards. That’s a total of 23 plays for 32 yards of which 36 yards came on 10 rushing attempts, 17 yards on 10 receptions and three sacks for minus-21 yards.

In the first half for the Rams, they had nine plays for four yards and quarterback Matthew Stafford had no completions in six pass attempts. In the second half, they had 51 yards on 12 plays for a game total of 55 yards on 21 plays. They had 13 rushes for 45 yards and two pass completions for 10 yards.

However, each team had one possession that was better than all the others. The Cardinals had one on their first touchdown drive with 24 yards (13 rushing, 11 receiving) on four first-down plays. Without that sequence, they had 19 plays for eight yards in the game.

On one of the Rams’ field-goal drives in the third quarter, they had 42 yards on five plays that included runs of 10 and 23 yards on successive plays by Darrell Henderson Jr. He had only 23 yards on his other 10 carries in the game. The Rams also gained seven yards on the final play of the game that began with nine seconds remaining at their own 20-yard line. Without those six plays for 49 yards, the Rams totaled six yards on their other 15 first-down plays.

When McVay was asked about having more success on first down, he talked about what he terms “get-back-on-track” plays after a bad first down.

“The question is easier answered based on, which play are you talking about?” McVay said. “Because if you go play-action, you go incomplete, that’s get back on track when you’re second-and-10. If you go inefficient run, it’s based on whatever that first play of the sequence is and what resulted in us being get back on track. Sometimes it might be a penalty, but ultimately there’s just too many times that we’re having to overcome those types of things.” Sound familiar?

He then explained the obvious when noting how and why this season has been different.

McVay said, “In previous years, like last year when we had get back on tracks, those weren’t as much of an issue because we felt like we had more of our arsenal that could enable you to be able to overcome some of those second-and-longs, or even third-and-longs just based on the way that we could attack defenses and some of the ways that we were playing.

“Obviously, your margin for error is much smaller right now relative to some of the different things that we’re working through, and that makes it more challenging because then if you go get back on track, if you don’t get it there, then you usually are talking about it third-and-long. So, there’s multiple layers to what happens on that first play of the sequence, none of which has been a good enough theme for us to be able to score points and move the football and sustain possession of the football.”

He didn’t specifically mention the offensive line, but he didn’t have to.

To cap the discussion, we need look no further than what third downs looked like for both teams Sunday.

The Cardinals were 6-for-14 on third down with an average length of 8.2 yards. However, their six successes averaged 6.0 yards, which included a third-down play of 14 yards to go. The eight misses averaged 9.9 yards and included yards to go of 10, 17, 18 and 21.

The Rams were in the same ballpark, converting 4-of-15 on third down with an average length of 8.8 yards. Their four makes averaged 3.8 yards (1, 3, 3, 8), while the 11 failures averaged 10.6 yards with six of 10 yards or more: 10, 11, 15, 17, 19, 19.

Your honor, I rest my case.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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