INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP)When the Los Angeles Rams gutted their roster during the offseason in an attempt to solve most of their salary cap problems in one year, their disappointed fans took comfort in the fact the Rams still didn’t look like the worst team in the NFC West, given the Arizona Cardinals’ concurrent franchise reset.
They’ll find out whether that small comfort was justified when the Cardinals (1-4) attempt to claim their third consecutive regular-season win at SoFi Stadium in this divisional rivalry on Sunday.
The Rams (2-3) haven’t been as good as the three Super Bowl contenders that beat them this season, but they’ve remained competitive in every game. The same consolation is keeping hope alive for fans of the Cards, who were surprisingly competitive early in the season before struggling in their last two outings.
“We feel like we can beat anybody, but we’ve just got to take that next step and execute all the way to the finish,” Rams receiver Tutu Atwell said.
The Cardinals have been outscored 54-7 in the fourth quarter, while the Rams – who were shut out in the second half of a loss to Philadelphia last week – are being outscored in every quarter except the first this season. Both teams are eager for a late-game breakthrough that could arrive this week.
“They made a couple more plays than we did, but our guys fight,” Cards coach Jonathan Gannon said after a loss to Cincinnati last weekend. “We’re competitive right now in every game we’re playing. We’ve got to start winning some games. We’ve talked about that, and how do we do that. We laid out a blueprint for them and go back to work.”
The most intriguing matchup appears to be Matthew Stafford and receivers Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua against an undermanned Arizona defense going through serious growing pains under 30-year-old rookie coordinator Nick Rallis. The Cardinals have allowed the most passing yards of any NFC team, and the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase tore them up with 15 catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns last week.
But Stafford sees the seeds of progress in the Arizona defense’s struggles so far.
“They play with a reckless abandon,” Stafford said. “They are flying around off the tape, you see it. … It’s a little bit of a unique style of a defense when you look at it. I’m not sure there’s many other teams in the league that are running what they’re running in some form or fashion. But what sticks out to me is the effort that they play with, the physicality that they play with.”
An avalanche of injuries to key players affect the Cards’ ability to stay competitive for another week. James Conner – the NFL’s eighth-leading rusher – was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after a knee injury against the Bengals last Sunday. Two-time All-Pro safety Budda Baker is out with a hamstring injury while the team’s other starting safety, Jalen Thompson, is also dealing with a hamstring ailment. Franchise QB Kyler Murray hasn’t played all season because of an ACL injury suffered last season.
Nacua leads the NFL with 46 receptions in five games. That’s already more catches than any rookie has ever had in his first six games, surpassing Saquon Barkley’s record of 40 even before the ball is snapped Sunday. If Nacua gets 104 yards receiving against Arizona, he would pass Harlon Hill’s 1954 NFL record of 675 yards receiving in a player’s first six games.
It would be understandable if Stafford is eager to face the Cardinals’ secondary. The group is giving up more than 250 yards per game through the air, which ranks 26th out of 32 teams. The Cardinals are young at cornerback with Marco Wilson and rookie Kei’Trel Clark, while the team’s safeties are battling injuries.
When the Cardinals have the ball, Aaron Donald and the Rams will attempt to get pressure on quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who is coming off a two-interception, one-fumble day against Cincinnati. Dobbs, who has never played against Los Angeles since entering the league in 2017, has been sacked nine times this season. Donald’s 16 career sacks against the Cardinals are his most against any team.
Getting pressure on Stafford is the best way to slow down the Rams’ offense, and the Cardinals have already racked up a solid 15 sacks this season, led by four from linebacker Dennis Gardeck. Los Angeles’ offensive line has been better than last season, but injuries are already taking a toll, with right guard Joseph Noteboom likely to miss his second straight game Sunday.
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Phoenix contributed to this report.
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