As the Cardinals prepare to enter SoFi Stadium Sunday, they are in true desperation mode trying to salvage a season that has them with a 3-6 overall record and 0-3 in the NFC West.
Amazingly, the Rams are almost in the same boat after winning the Super Bowl, but are now staring at a 3-5 record and 1-2 in the division.
Both teams have lost four of their last five games, have had virtually impossible-to-overcome issues on the offensive line and each enters the weekend with question marks surrounding their quarterbacks.
On that note, we begin what to watch.
Kyler Murray tweaked a hamstring in last Sunday’s loss to Seattle while Matthew Stafford suffered a concussion against Tampa Bay and entered the league protocol earlier this week. Murray was limited in practice Thursday and Friday, while Stafford did not work Thursday but was limited Friday. Each are officially listed as questionable on the injury report.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said, “We want to see how he is moving around (before the game) and make sure he’s able to do what he can do if we’re gonna put him out there. I want to make sure that he can take off and do what he does with his legs if he’s gonna be out there.”
Murray said on Hard Knocks that he wasn’t able to “fully open up” on a run he had against the Seahawks after suffering the injury earlier in the drive that ended with him fumbling.
When asked how the decision will be made considering it can be in a player’s mind even if he feels OK, that there’s a risk of doing further damage to the hamstring, Kingsbury said, “That’s the comfort level we want to make sure he has. We don’t want him to feel any sort of pressure to not run or not play his game, so we’ll make sure he feels fully comfortable before we put him out there on Sunday and we won’t know until we get him out there and run around game day.”
If it’s determined that Murray won’t play, Colt McCoy will start. The Cardinals were 2-1 with him last season when Murray was out with a high-ankle sprain.
As for Stafford, Rams coach Sean McVay said Friday, “He’s making good progress. As far as the exact level in the protocols, I let those guys (trainers) kind of just tell me, ‘Hey, he’s making good progress, we’re going to leave the door open.’”
John Wolford would be the starter if Stafford fails to be cleared from the protocol. With Jared Goff out for the season finale against the Cardinals in 2020, Wolford led the Rams to an 18-7 victory in a game Murray left early with a leg injury and gave way to Chris Streveler. Murray returned for two fourth-quarter possessions.
In the game, Wolford passed for 231 yards with an interception and 64.7 passer rating, but also rushed for 56 yards on six attempts, including three third-down conversions on runs of 13, 14 and nine yards.
If Wolford plays, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said, “The overall game plan won’t change much. It’s the same system. But obviously their backup is a guy that can run with the football. We faced him two years ago in Week 17, so that’s a good thing for us. But the zone-read stuff, the scrambling on third down, is obviously different than Stafford. Overall, first, second down won’t change much, but his skill set is different than Matthew, so we will adjust if he’s the quarterback.”
Asked Thursday if he got out the tape from the 2020 game, Joseph said, “I have. Of course, I have. I watched it last night, a couple times this morning. This kid’s a good quarterback. He makes good decisions, he can throw the football. It’s scary when he pulls the ball down. He’s not a big guy, but he’s fast. And he plays fast with the ball. The ball’s out very fast in the pass game, so he’s their backup for a reason. He’s no slouch. It won’t be easy, but our plan will adjust accordingly.”
McVay was also asked about preparing for two different quarterbacks and said, “You’ve got to prepare for their system. Colt McCoy is his backup, very similar skill set. Obviously, Kyler is faster and explosive and all those things, but they’ll do similar game-plan things, they did it with him last year. I know Colt well from Washington; he’s a very good backup. They executed the game plan the same way when he was going out there.
“Hopefully you don’t have to prepare for the 42-yard run that he can absolutely explode on if Colt goes out there. Hopefully, it’s more like a 10-yard run and you can go play that way. Don’t tell Colt; he’ll be all pissed off I said that, but you do prepare for those things.”
Mirror image offensive lines
With right guard Will Hernandez on reserve/injured with a pectoral injury suffered in the first quarter of Sunday’s game against Seattle, the Cardinals will be starting their seventh different starting line combination of the season. They have had 10 different players start games on the line.
Lecitus Smith replaced Hernandez against the Seahawks and he will likely be in the mix against the Rams along with the possibility of Sean Harlow and Josh Jones getting snaps. Harlow could also play at times instead of Billy Price at center.
Asked Friday if the line “is fluid,” Kingsbury said, “It is. We’ve had a bunch of moving pieces, bunch of different guys got reps this (week and) we’ll see where they fit. We’ll probably play multiple people in the game and try to find the best combination during the game and keep some of those guys healthy.”
When asked earlier in the week about possibly playing Jones at guard, Kingsbury said, “We don’t really want to risk him going inside (for) fear of losing the one backup tackle we have, but if it gets down to that, he’s the guy who played it last year and could slide in and play.”
As for the Rams, it appears they will continue their streak of having a different starting line combination in every game with Alaric Jackson (knee) doubtful. Jackson has started four games at right guard and the last two at left tackle. The Rams have had five different starting right guards.
If Jackson doesn’t play, Ty Nsekhe will be the left tackle, the team’s third of the season following the retirement of Andrew Whitworth. He would be the 12th different player to start a game on the line for the Rams.
Nsekhe is the equivalent of the Cardinals’ Price. He played 16 percent of the offensive snaps for Dallas last season and became an unrestricted free agent in March. He wasn’t with a team until being signed to the Saints practice squad on Oct. 11 and then to the Rams roster seven days later.
McVay said Friday, “It’s one of those deals that every single week, now you’re probably looking at your ninth different combination that you’re going to be starting in nine games this year. Which, hey, has it ever happened before? I’m sure it has, but it’s been unprecedented for us.”
Meanwhile, Joseph could have been talking about the Cardinals when he was asked what he’s seen from the Rams offense this season.
“It’s the same offense, but like most teams that have injuries, it won’t be the same,” Joseph said. “The quarterback’s still playing at a high level. Kupp’s still one of the best in the league. The backs are all good. But the oline’s been beat up, and it’s obvious on tape. If you can’t block anybody, you sure can’t run it or throw it. And that’s been their problem.
“They’ll get some guys back this week and it should be better for them; hopefully not. But when you’re not playing with your best guys, that’s what it looks like. It’s the NFL. Your best players help you win games and when you’re playing with young guys and backups it won’t be as good. It’s really simple. That’s where they are.”
Is Budda human?
That’s the question some were asking Friday when safety Budda Baker was on the practice field after being heard on Hard Knocks cameras after the Seattle game saying his ankle was “f’ed up.”
Kingsbury declared him out Wednesday after reports circulated that he would miss two or three weeks with a high-ankle sprain.
But there he was Friday, high-stepping during stretching and moving around well in drills viewed by the media. He ended up being listed as questionable after being limited in practice.
“Starting the week, I thought he had zero percent chance,” Kingsbury said after practice. “Obviously, he’s been fighting us to get back out there and we’ll see how he progresses in the next couple days. But he’s a special human and wanted to be out there today.”
Asked if, in fact, Baker is actually human, Kingsbury said smiling, “I don’t know. You watch him play, it doesn’t seem like it. The spirit, reckless abandon he plays with is unlike many people I’ve seen.”
When asked generally about when to return injured players to the field, he said, “We want to make sure that we feel like they can play at 100 percent or close to it in his case and not really injure it further that could keep him out for an extended period of time. So we’ll be really smart in the next couple days and see how it progresses.”
Baker didn’t practice on Wednesday and Thursday last week and was limited prior to the Seattle game on Friday because of an ankle injury, so Kingsbury was asked if the latest injury is to the same ankle. He said, “Same type situation and so we want to make sure that it doesn’t get aggravated further.”
When it was noted to linebacker Markus Golden that he probably wasn’t surprised to see Baker on the field Friday, Golden said, “Not at all. That’s my faith in him. He loves the game, he’s our leader, man. I’ve watched him since he was a young pup coming in and he’s been like that since. I’m proud of him to see where he’s at because he’s really a leader, so I’m not surprised to see him out there at all.”
But, is he human? Golden smiled and said, “He’s a special human. Great guy, great teammate; he’s just real. Everything he says is real. When you have guys like that and you’re able to play with them, he’s really a blessing to have as a teammate.”
Safety Chris Banjo, who would benefit with added snaps if Baker can’t play, said “not at all” when asked if he was surprised to see Baker on the field. He added, “Who is? He’s like Wolverine.”
But is he human? “People haven’t been able to figure that part out,” he said. “I had heard 3-to-4, 1-to-2 he’d be out. Maybe they meant days instead of weeks.”
Also worth watching
Cardinals cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. didn’t practice at all this week because of a back injury and is questionable. Last week, he was limited on Wednesday and Thursday, practiced fully on Friday and played every snap (73) against Seattle. This week was different.
Joseph said Thursday, “He’s getting better. Hopefully, tomorrow he feels much better and he can play on the weekend.”
On Friday, Kingsbury said about Murphy playing, “We’ll see. We’ll see how he feels. Same kind of back issue he’s been battling through and not sure if he’ll be up or not.”
On the Rams side, a defensive player not talked about much thanks to the presence of Aaron Donald is nose tackle Greg Gaines. He is doubtful Sunday because of an elbow injury.
Gaines played 67 percent of the snaps in 2021 and is at 77 percent this season although they have gone down the last three weeks. Gaines played 93 percent, 80, 94, 100 and 91 in the first five games and then 27, 58 and 60.
His backups are Jonah Williams, who has played 6 percent this season and Bobby Brown III, who missed the first six games on league suspension, returned to the roster Oct. 24 and has been inactive the last two games.
Joseph consistently talks about his defense’s goal of getting teams off the field on third down and limiting red-zone penetrations to field goals.
He didn’t mince words when discussing games against Minnesota and Seattle.
“Last two weeks, red zone has been atrocious,” Joseph said. “It’s been like 0-for-9; it’s been about four third-down touchdowns (actually five) in the red zone. Our focus has been red zone and third down all year and that’s gotta get better for this unit.”
When it was noted the Seahawks were 3-for-8 on third down before hitting all seven attempts in two second-half touchdown drives, he said, “And it was our mistakes. It’s not like we were so tired that we couldn’t execute. We don’t talk about how much we play. We have a job to do and that’s play defense.”
Because of those nine red-zone touchdowns allowed against Minnesota and Seattle, the Cardinals have dropped to 27th in the NFL with a 67.6 percentage of allowed touchdowns. Prior to the Vikings game, they were at 57.1, which currently would rank 16th.
Who will be active?
For the second consecutive week, the Cardinals were forced to add a kicker to the roster because of illness.
Last week, it was punter Nolan Cooney after Andy Lee was added to the injury report on Saturday. Lee ended up playing and Cooney was inactive. This week, Matt Prater, who has been kicking with a sore right hip and missed three games because of it, had illness added to his status Friday resulting in the Cardinals signing Tristan Vizcaino to the 53-man roster.
Prater did not travel with the team to Los Angeles Saturday, but remans questionable for the game. Depending on illness status, it’s possible he could travel on his own later Saturday or early Sunday with kickoff scheduled for 1:25 pm L.A. time. If he is able to kick, Vizcaino might be inactive, or both could be active with Vizcaino handling kickoffs. The Cardinals have had great use of jersey No. 15 this season with kickers. It has been worn by Matt Ammendola, Rodrigo Blankenship and Cooney, and will be worn by Vizcaino if he is active Sunday.
The Cardinals also activated safety Charles Washington from reserve/injured after he was designated for return and practiced this week; finally placed center Rodney Hudson on reserve/injured and elevated offensive lineman Rashaad Coward from the practice squad. Hudson has already missed five games because of a knee injury and will now miss at least another four. The earliest he could return is in Week 15 for a road game in Denver. The Cardinals have their bye in Week 13.
The team’s record this year is 2-2 when Hudson plays and 1-4 when he doesn’t. The record is 11-5 with Hudson and 3-7 without him since the start of the 2021 season.
After saying this week his soul leaves his body when the defense scores even one point, Joseph on what it feels like when he sees a 51-yard play against Seattle developing: “For a coach? It’s heartbreaking. But for players also. That’s the game. As a staff, we try to show ‘em every play that they should see on game day. And most of the time, it’s right on. It’s a game of mistakes. Obviously, players want to do it right. We want it done right. But that’s football. If every play was perfect, it would be a boring game, right? Offense calls plays and it works. We call plays and it works.
“It doesn’t work because someone makes a mistake. It’s not that you’re pissed that we didn’t make a play. Disappointed that we practiced it and it wasn’t made, but that’s football. It happens every other play. That was a big one. Obviously, in four-minute, you have certain things you’re looking for. That was the boot we were looking for and we didn’t see it.”
Kingsbury on having the Hard Knocks cameras in his house: “It was fine. It wasn’t my favorite part of it. But they do a good job. You hardly notice that they’re around when they’re at the facility and so it was a small ask.”
Did you receive many texts from people afterward? “Some of the players trying to set up some offseason parties and whatnot, but lots of Budda love on the phone, so they think of him the way we view him around here and that was cool to see.”
Golden on seeing Hard Knocks: “Haven’t watched it yet. I’ve never watched it each year. But this year I’m gonna watch it. Everyone was talking about it today (Friday), so this will probably be the first one I officially watch.”
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