Key Matchups: St Louis Rams vs Arizona Cardinals


If the St Louis Rams are playing only for pride for the remainder of the 2014 season, then they can certainly hold their heads high after the last couple of performances. The 52-0 annihilation of Oakland was followed swiftly last week with a second consecutive shutout, this time 24-0 against a similarly ineffective Washington Redskins team. While Rams fans will be deliriously dreaming of a third doughnut in a row, it is a very different prospect on primetime this Thursday night against one of only four teams in the league with double-digit wins, the Arizona Cardinals. If St Louis are to get revenge for the week 10 loss in the desert, here is this week’s selection of the key one-on-one matchups.

Tre Mason vs Larry Foote

The Cardinals linebacker is the team’s leading tackler with 77, and has been on the field for all but one of the 883 defensive snaps Arizona has faced this season after coming through a foot injury that had him listed as questionable prior to the victory against the Chiefs. Pro Football Focus’ grading splits has Foote coming out far weaker in pass coverage (-10.5) than against the run (-0.5). If Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles play to their strengths they will leave their talented secondary to take care of the Rams receivers and keep Foote’s attention on stopping the run. Coming the other way is Rams leading rusher, Tre Mason. Averaging 108 all-purpose yards per game over the last four fixtures, Mason is fast becoming one of the biggest offensive threats on the Rams roster. While Zac Stacy and Daryl Richardson before him both showed promise in their rookie years on which they failed to build, the hope in St Louis is that Mason has far more to give in years to come. Mason may have come into the starting job too late to realistically reach 1000-yards this season, but another strong performance could be instrumental in helping the Rams towards victory.

Larry Fitzgerald vs EJ Gaines

An unapologetic repeat here of one of my selections from the reverse fixture earlier in the season – When the Rams faced the Cardinals earlier this year, Fitzgerald burned the Rams defence, making 9 catches for 112 yards. The eight-time Pro Bowler is once again the leading receiver for Arizona in an offence which ranks surprisingly-low considering the teams overall record, at 23rd in the league. Averaging nearly 14 yards per catch, using Fitzgerald to good effect again will be key to the Cardinals’ hopes of doing the double over the Rams on the season. On the opposite side of the ball is Rams rookie corner EJ Gaines, who has shone in a secondary which has gone from an area of real weakness and concern in 2013 to a central feature in the league’s 11th ranked defence. The Missouri native has truly looked at home in the NFL, drawing praise from a number of commentators and grading nicely at +4.2 according to Pro Football Focus, fractionally outside the top third of all cornerbacks. Good value for a 6th round draft pick? You’d better believe it. As the suffocating Rams defence continues to dominate, Gaines will certainly continue to grow. If he can come out on top against one of the better veteran receivers in the league, it will be a major factor in the Rams search for a win that would take them back to .500 for the first time since week 2.

Tavon Austin vs Rashad Johnson

While clearly not in “breaking out” territory, the numbers posted by Tavon Austin over the last few fixtures have been very encouraging for St Louis. Austin’s total yardage in 2014 from receiving, rushing, punt returns and kick returns comes to 741 – of which 277 yards (over 37%) have come in the last two weeks alone. Offensive co-ordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been the subject of much criticism for his failure to fully exploit Austin’s speed and playmaking ability, but with three touchdowns now to his name in 2014 (albeit none yet through the air), Austin is finally threatening to contribute in a way some fans were just beginning to fear he never would. Hoping to negate the Austin threat will be Arizona’s third year safety, Rashad Johnson. Leading the team and tied for 5th in the league, Johnson has four interceptions this season, two of which were returned for touchdowns including an 88-yarder against Atlanta. Johnson has the speed to get ahead of the path of the ball and put himself in a position to make big plays. While few can match Tavon Austin for pure speed, Johnson is certainly no slouch either and has a 3-inch height advantage to add to the mix. If Shaun Hill does float passes up for these two to contest, it will be interesting to see who comes out on top.