Limiting Rams DL Aaron Donald’s production atop Cardinals’ to-do list
TEMPE — The Arizona Cardinals’ NFC Wild Card showing last postseason was a wreck.
There is not much more that needs to be said about that at this point.
With the Los Angeles Rams coming to State Farm Stadium on Sunday, though, the bad memories that were seared into the minds of Cardinals fans have come back.
There is no running away from them.
But instead of dwelling on the past, Arizona players and coaches have been focused on the current roster and all that needs to happen to secure a Week 3 victory over a team that has had the Cardinals number for years.
It all starts with keeping Aaron Donald at bay.
“Donald, nobody has a plan for that, but I like the group we have,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said Friday. “Those guys (Rodney Hudson, Justin Pugh and D.J. Humphries) on that left side really communicate well and play with a calm when they’re out there together. (Kelvin Beachum) and Rodney have really helped (Will Hernandez).
“We’ll do our best on Donald — just like everybody else — but he’s kind of an unstoppable force and you’ve got to make sure he doesn’t just completely wreck the game.”
One way to limit Donald’s production is by getting the ball out before he gets home to quarterback Kyler Murray.
In the Buffalo Bills’ Week 1 win over the Rams, quarterback Josh Allen had his big shots but was methodical with his short pass attempts throughout the evening. He let his wide receivers do the rest of the work after the catch, something Murray and Kingsbury should be mindful of when it comes to Sunday.
This season, Murray is recording 3.7 air yards per completion. That number should be a bit higher, as Allen registered seven air yards per completion in Week 1. But against Donald, that may be the ticket to win it.
Formulating a game plan around short throws, mixed with a handful of timely big shots, could give the Cardinals offense enough room to operate without the constant pressure of Donald bearing down on every play.
That’s where pass catchers Zach Ertz and Greg Dortch, who are averaging just over five yards before the catch, come in.
Back at full strength and coming off 73 plays in the team’s overtime win over the Las Vegas Raiders, the tight end provides Murray with a security blanket in the middle of the field.
Then there’s Dortch, who continues to have a role in this offense with Rondale Moore sidelined due to a hamstring injury. Through two games, the slot wide receiver is pacing the team in receptions (11) and yards (118) and is tied with Marquise Brown and Ertz with a touchdown apiece.
And like any good pass rush, the best way to counter it is to run the rock.
In Arizona’s dominant Week 3 win over Los Angeles last season, the Cardinals’ rushing attack was a key factor in the victory. The same can’t be said for the other two matchups against the Rams in 2021.
Behind the combination of James Conner and Chase Edmonds, Arizona racked up 216 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries in Week 3. Not only was Donald held sack-less, the Cardinals’ game plan gave little time for quarterback Matthew Stafford to mount any sort of comeback. Arizona struck fast and kept the pressure on.
But at the end of the day, sometimes even the best laid plans deteriorate with Donald on the other side. It’s all about the limiting the damage when he’s on the field.
“He is who he is,” Murray said. “I’ve learned to embrace and love the opportunity to be able to play against him just because he’s not going to be here forever and playing the game forever.
“To be able to step on the field with him is an honor and to be able to go to battle against him. … He’s one of the best ever do it, so that’s how I see it.”
And let’s not forget about another future gold-jacket wearer in middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
After a storied career in Seattle, Wagner decided to stay in the division this offseason, joining forces with Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, another All-Pro defender.
With Wagner comes an immense amount of football knowledge and a leadership aspect that only helps cement the middle of the Rams defense.
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Murray said. “You can’t really put a price tag on having that guy in your defense, so it’s going to be a tough challenge. We know that, but again, I’m excited.”