Rams Like Chances in Sunday's Clash with Cards
L.A. Quarterback John Wolford to Make NFL Debut in Playoff Decider
December 31, 2020
The Los Angeles Rams will ring in the 2021 New Year with a battle for their playoff lives against the Arizona Cardinals at SoFi Stadium this Sunday, 1:25 p.m., January 3. Adding to the drama, the game will feature Rams backup quarterback John Wolford making his NFL debut. Jared Goff, the team's starting quarterback for the past 4 1/2 years has been temporarily sidelined due to a broken thumb suffered during Sunday's 20-9 Division title loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Wolford's start is the definition of baptism by fire. He starred at Wake Forrest University for four years before being signed in 2018 as an un-drafted free agent by the New York Jets. The 25-year old played professionally for the Arizona Hotshots in the short-lived and aborted Alliance of American Football league in 2019. He led that league with 14 touchdown passes in eight games played, finished second in passer rating and total passing yardage.
"It's been a fun journey for me getting to this point. It's a lot of hard work and I'm confident in the time I've spent that has gotten me here and I'm confident in my capabilities as a player," said Wolford during Wednesday's virtual media conference.
"Obviously, it's a little bit different knowing that you're playing, but my approach the entire year has been to try and prepare like you're the starter, so not much has changed. I got a little jump on the game plan Monday, Tuesday and then rolling into Wednesday."
Adding to the Rams concern, leading wide receiver Cooper Kupp and defensive tackle Michael Brockers were placed on COVID IR this week and will not play against the Cardinals. Running back Darrell Henderson was also placed on IR due to a high ankle sprain while starter Cam Akers' status is improving but uncertain with an ankle issue.
McVay: "The thing that's unfortunate is that guys like Michael and Cooper that are on the COVID list, that have really done everything right... that's what you just realize, that some of these things are out of your control." Running back Malcolm Brown has seen limited practice due to a shoulder condition. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and linebacker Micah Kiser still recovering from injuries, will not be available against the Cardinals.
Henderson and possibly Akers, the Rams ground attack will rely on Malcolm Brown. Running back Xavier Jones is also being considered from the backfield against Arizona. The Rams will flex their offense and rely on their tight ends in Kupp's absence. Wide receivers Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds with tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett were instrumental in the Rams' march to Super Bowl LIII two years ago. Rookie wide receiver Van Jefferson continues to evolve and should expect increased targets on Sunday. Tight end Johnny Mundt is reliable and will see more snaps.
"Great understanding and ownership of the initial parts of the game plan," said McVay on Wolford's preparation this week. "I think that's really important because it starts with that quarterback, then being able to echo and articulate it in the huddle with the other 10 guys... but that's been consistent with John's rhythm and routine."
"John's got a skill set that will be fun to watch him execute our offense and how things come to life differently. Each guy has a creativity to his game, but I think he'll do a nice job kind of distributing and making good decisions. We'll see exactly what that looks like on Sunday."
The Rams seemingly had an NFC Playoff spot wrapped up week's ago after they improved their record to 9-5, with decent chances for home-field advantage. Two losses later, they need to clinch a Wild Card spot by beating the Cardinals. A Chicago Bears loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday would also vault the Rams into the postseason. According to tie-breaking rules, the Rams would be bounced from a Playoff spot if they lose to Arizona and the Bears beat the Packers. All three teams would end the season with identical 9-7 records.
The Rams postseason plans changed as soon as Goff fractured his thumb hitting a defender's helmet on a pass attempt in the third quarter against the Seahawks. He had successful thumb surgery on Monday and could possibly be available if the Rams advance through the Playoffs. "Credit to how quickly you can turn these things around now," said McVay. "It is something that it's not significant enough that it keeps you out for an elongated period of time. It's more about just stabilizing that thing. That's what the surgery was reflective of. That's also why he should be available as quickly as potentially a week from now."
The Rams routed Arizona 38-28 four weeks ago and have yet to lose in seven games between the NFC West rivals since McVay took over in 2017. They have beaten head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray three times since both joined the Cards last season. The Rams have scored at least 30 points in all seven wins, including two shutouts. The Cards had won two consecutive games before losing to the San Francisco 49ers, 20-12, last Saturday.
Murray leads the Arizona offense, throwing for 3,884 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year has improved in practically every offensive statistical category this season. Last season he threw for 3,722 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Already one of the top rushing quarterbacks in recent history, he has elevated his numbers in comparison: 816 total rushing yards in 2020 to 544 yards in 2019; 11 rushing touchdowns this season compared to four last year.
Murray improved his average yards per carry to 6.2 this season. Last season he was sacked 48 times, which led the league. This year he's only been sacked 25 times. During the loss to the 49er's He suffered a leg injury late in the game and was questionable. On Wednesday, Murray stated that he would be playing against the Rams at SoFi Stadium with the Cardinals postseason also on the line.
Lost in the offensive unknowns for each team, the greatest impact on Sunday's match will be determined by the Rams defensive unit, the NFL's top-rated defense. Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is preparing for Cards backup quarterbacks Chris Streveler and former UCLA Bruin Brett Hundley as well: "Our guys are aware of all three of the quarterbacks and certainly the styles... Brett's played and started games in this league as well. It's one of those types of games where it's all hands on-deck for both teams."
A key will be the matchup between Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Arizona wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins who has scorched secondaries with 111 receptions for 1,372 yards but only six touchdown catches. "Certainly, there's that game within the game, the matchup between those two guys. That's as good as it gets in the league. We're fortunate to be in a division where you get to see a lot of those great matchups... we're the last game of the season and they're in the top-three in the NFL in total yards," said Staley.
Kingsbury is prepared for Wolford and McVay: "From what I've seen, he can extend plays, very accurate, gets the ball out quick and very smart player. It's going to be a heck of a challenge. I mean, we expect him to a really high level. Player in that offense with Sean calling the plays. So, we're preparing for their best shot."
The Rams added insurance at the quarterback position by signing Blake Bortles to backup Wolford. The NFL veteran was Goff's backup last season, appearing in very few plays for three games. "He has a great recall. He's a really smart player that's had a lot of experiences in this league. Foundationally, our information and our verbiage are very similar to what it was last year. So, he's come in and handled things really well. It's been great having Blake around," said McVay.
"I'm confident in John, I'm also confident in the other 10 players around him and understanding what guys need to do to step up... But man, what a great opportunity to respond, and let's go lay the chips out there and see what the heck happens."