The team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game, and it’s no mystery why: whether a strip-sack to end a drive, a giveaway that shifts momentum, or a game-saving pick, few plays make more of a difference in winning and losing. Dave Archibald looks at the St. Louis Rams three takeaways, which led to early points and a Rams upset special over the Arizona Cardinals.
On any given Sunday, as the saying goes, any team can win ‒ even the lowest of underdogs. The Cardinals entered Sunday’s game 3-0 as seven-point favorites over the 1-2 Rams but the Rams emerged as 24-22 victors. As in the case of many upsets, turnovers swung this contest dramatically, with the Cardinals coughing the ball up three times while St. Louis protected the ball all afternoon. Those giveaways led to 17 of the Rams’ 24 points and made a huge difference in perhaps the day’s most surprising result.
Starting Off On The Wrong Foot
Rookie running back David Johnson (#31) fielded the ball deep in the end zone but elected to bring it out rather kneel down for a touchback. His blocking sets up to his right, as does St. Louis’s coverage, so Johnson bounces the run left where there is less congestion. He has to beat safety Mark Barron (#26) in the open field, but Barron manages to jostle Johnson’s arm and the ball pops out, recovered by St. Louis. The rookie didn’t protect the ball with both arms, and that mistake led to a Rams touchdown and 7-0 lead three plays later.
Quarterback Carson Palmer has found the fountain of youth in Arizona; at the age of 36, he is averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, the best mark of his career. The strong-armed Palmer has thrived in head coach Bruce Arians’ downfield-passing-oriented system, but one deep pass Sunday didn’t go according to plan.
Speedy second-year man John Brown (#12) runs a deep post against the press man coverage of Janoris Jenkins (#21). He gets an inside release at the line of scrimmage, giving him separation once he makes his cut. Moreover, T.J. McDonald (#25), playing as the lone high safety, is distracted by the vertical route happening on the other side of the field and doesn’t get enough depth to help Jenkins. Palmer sees the opening but can’t quite fit the throw ‒ which must travel 60 yards in the air ‒ into the window. McDonald makes a great recovery and arrives in time to disrupt Brown’s catch attempt, while Jenkins is able to secure the interception. The Cardinals had a 2nd and 1 at midfield before this play, in good position to score points, but instead St. Louis marched downfield the other way and kicked a field goal to make it 10-6.
Rodney of Clan McLeod
Brown lines up wide right with Larry Fitzgerald (#11) in the slot and the two receivers put on a clinic of how to run a pick route against press coverage. Brown runs an in-cut towards Fitzgerald’s man, but instead of hitting him and committing an offensive pass interference penalty, he turns towards Palmer as if to receive a pass. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald runs his route tight around Brown, leaving no daylight for the defensive back slip between the wideouts. The veteran receiver springs open along the sideline, and Palmer drops in a perfect touch pass. It’s a big gain ‒ until safety Rodney McLeod (#23) charges in and spears the football out of Fitzgerald’s grasp with his helmet. The football pops high into the air and Trumaine Johnson (#22) dives onto it. Arizona was past midfield and threatening to score, but St. Louis drove 58 yards for a touchdown to extend their lead to 17-9.
Anatomy of an Upset
Turnovers weren’t the only ingredient in St. Louis’ surprising road victory. The Rams defense held firm in the red zone, forcing five Cardinals field goals. Dynamic playmaker and receiver Tavon Austin scored two touchdowns and tallied 116 yards from scrimmage. And then there was the breakout performance from rookie running back Todd Gurley, who carried 19 times for 146 yards in his first extended action. Given that the final margin of victory was only two points, it’s indisputable that the turnovers factored heavily into the final outcome. At 3-1, the Cardinals are still in excellent shape, but they will need to take better care of the football to avoid a repeat of Sunday’s surprising defeat.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.