The Arizona Cardinals came into this season with a cornerback group that drew questions because of its youth. Those questions were dismissed when the Cardinals secondary was a strength of the team early on. However, this last month or so, they’ve been poor. Understaffed and hurting, maybe, but poor nonetheless.
The Cardinals stumbled into the postseason and now face an underdog situation against a divisional champion Los Angeles Rams side. With those questions again swirling, this playoff clash with the Rams could be “make or break” for the Cardinals secondary.
Arizona Cardinals Secondary will Make or Break Playoff Run
Rams Passing Offense A Tall Order For Cardinals Secondary
This Cardinals secondary is a group wounded in both a physical and mental state. They’re down to one starter and have been awful the last couple of weeks. It’s a nightmarish scenario that this group now must face the NFL’s leading receiver, Cooper Kupp. With Matthew Stafford having recovered from his mid-season slump, and Odell Beckham Jr doing a solid job of standing in for Robert Woods, Los Angeles’ passing attack is potent. For this Arizona secondary, it’s a horrible matchup.
This is Arizona’s third game against Los Angeles this season. The key to stopping them remains the same. Los Angeles’ passing attack is based on a high-low concept, with a deep threat opening up the underneath areas of the field. Los Angeles’ offense is excellent at creating space, and it’s in this space that Kupp has exploded. With a quarterback capable of accurately playing the intermediate game, Kupp has maximized the yield created by that deep threat. Beckham might not excel in that role as much as Woods did, but he proved in the second matchup this season that he’s a viable threat.
Vance Joseph Has To Protect Cardinals Secondary
Early in the season, planting Byron Murphy on Cooper Kupp, mano e mano in the slot, would be a matchup Vance Joseph would take. Unfortunately, a lack of form and, indeed, available quality, has seen Vance Joseph move away from the man coverage that has become such a staple of his defensive scheme.
Marco Wilson is trending to return against Los Angeles, but having two-out-of-three starters back likely won’t see Joseph fall back into man-coverage sets. Given Arizona’s struggles at cornerback and the fact that zone coverages caused issues for Stafford in the first matchup back in October, fans should expect to see a tonne of zone coverages on Monday. It’s an enforced strategy, but it’s worked against Los Angeles before.
Veteran Bashaud Breeland, signed as a free agent last week, also has a history as a zone corner, so this scheme could help Arizona get some quality on the field; their young backups, like Breon Borders last week, have struggled.
Safeties Vital To Elevating Arizona’s Cornerbacks
Arizona’s cornerbacks have shown that this current group simply cannot hold up on its own. Fans have looked to Byron Murphy, their best corner, and only surviving starter, to elevate the group. Instead, Murphy’s performances have been emblematic of the struggles in the group as a whole. The group has had opportunities to regain some form, and they’ve failed.
This shift to a zonal scheme allows Vance Joseph to better utilize his entire defensive unit as a pass defense; the onus in the passing game is no longer solely on the cornerback group. With athletes like Isaiah Simmons and Budda Baker, Joseph can severely inhibit the ability of the Rams to play that underneath game in which Kupp has thrived. Loading the middle of the field will be vital to stopping the most potent facets of this Los Angeles offense.
Arizona both won and lost a game to the Rams during the regular season. Simply, they have to return to their successes from that first game. On the back end, safety Jalen Thompson is going to be key against the Rams. Thompson’s ability to play as a single-high backstop at free safety is integral to the aggression inherent in Joseph’s system. If the Cardinals are going to play hard underneath to counteract the threat of Kupp, Thompson has to be a reliable presence on the back end. Kupp may always be Stafford’s first read, but that deep threat is far more than a decoy. Stafford will throw that ball deep if allowed to, and Thompson is vital to eliminating that part of his game away.
Group Effort to Stop the Rams
Joseph faces a difficult task, heading to Los Angeles with an inadequate cornerback group. However, there are going to be contingencies in place to avoid allowing the Rams to exploit that deficiency. The Cardinals have to deal with the passing threat of the Rams by using everything they have at their disposal. With an understaffed and underperforming passing defense, it’s going to have to be a group effort if the Cardinals are to quell the venom of the Rams on Monday night.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images