In the second game of the 2019 season, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger felt a twinge in his throwing arm as he delivered a pass. And that was it for him. His 2019 season was over that quickly.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh – as with most teams – the loss of their starting quarterback was pretty much the death-knell for their season. A probable playoff team, last year’s Steelers struggled to an 8-8 finish. This year, both San Francisco and Dallas saw their seasons eviscerated by the loss of their starting quarterbacks. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl last year. This year, they floundered to a 6-10 record (of course, quarterback was not their only significant injury in 2020). The Cowboys just missed last year’s playoffs (they were 8-8). They also finished 2020 with a 6-10 record. They were down to their third-string quarterback for a stretch of the season.
If you follow a team for any number of years, then your team has almost certainly – from time to time – had to deal with the loss of your starting quarterback.
So there are many in the NFL family who can fully commiserate with the situation that unfolded in SoFi Stadium, last Sunday. With a playoff berth on the line in the final game of the regular season, the Arizona Cardinals faced off against the Los Angeles Rams and their backup quarterback John Wolford – who had never thrown a pass in the NFL.
One series into the game, and Arizona was down to their second string quarterback as well – a chap named Chris Streveler, who – like Wolford – had never thrown an NFL pass.
Of the two challenging situations, the Rams suddenly had the advantage. They at least knew during the week that they would be going with their backup, and had the opportunity to adjust the game plan around him. For Arizona, they found out slightly more than three minutes into the game that everything was going to have to change.
Neither backup dazzled – although both had their moments. Neither was terrible – although both threw interceptions that cost their teams touchdowns. For Arizona, though, that touchdown would be their only scoring on the day. The Rams fared better – if only moderately so.
Yes, the Rams were 0-for-4 in the Red Zone – but at least they got there. Using a controlled passing game and – surprisingly – the legs of Wolford, LA managed four drives that lasted at least ten plays – three of which consumed more than six and a half minutes of clock time. They ended up with three field goals, with the other drive ending with a fumble on the Arizona goal line. The Cardinals recovered that fumble – temporarily avoiding disaster – only to give back two points on a safety two plays later.
For the afternoon, John Wolford became the closest thing either team had to a Kyler Murray (Arizona’s starting quarterback). John picked up 56 rushing yards on six runs – four of them designed runs, and 2 scrambles. He picked up 4 first downs with his legs – more than the rest of the runners on his team combined (Cam Akers and Malcom Brown combined for just 3) and as many running first downs as the entire Arizona team (they managed 4 as well).
Which brings me to my afternoon’s rumination. Setting aside the added preparation time that Wolford had and just looking at these two backup quarterbacks, their skill sets and the systems they operate in, which would you say would have an easier time stepping in for the starter? John Wolford taking over for Jared Goff? Or Chris Steveler replacing for Kyler Murray? I believe a convincing argument could be made here for Wolford. This wouldn’t be because John is necessarily any more talented than Chris. It would have to do more with the offenses they were sliding into.
The rage over the last several years has been the dual-threat quarterback. Murray, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson – there are several others. These are young quarterbacks who are raising the bar of athleticism for the position across the NFL – quarterbacks who run by design, not just when the pass play breaks down. The threat of these guys pulling the ball back and darting through the line for chunk running plays keeps defensive coordinators up at night.
But what happens when you design your offense around a particular talent and then you lose that talent? What happens when he’s not there? In earlier interviews, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh discussed how every personnel decision that the entire organization made revolved around the singular talent of Lamar Jackson. Harbaugh is a brilliant coach, and he has constructed a wondrous football chrysalis around Jackson designed in every particular to enhance his skill set and minimize his weaknesses.
But what happens when the irreplaceable talent needs to be replaced? In a critical game against Pittsburgh this season, Jackson wasn’t available due to that COVID thing. In his place, the substantial talent of Robert Griffin III – whose skill set is similar to Jackson’s – tried to run the same offense with no real success. The Ravens managed just 219 total yards and lost 19-14.
In fairness to RGIII, Baltimore’s practice time was almost non-existent – again due to the COVID outbreak that they were trying to manage. But even given adequate amounts of practice time, there is only one Lamar Jackson – and if his singular talent is the epicenter of your football organization, then when that light blinks out – whether for a game or a season – your football universe finds itself in a very dark place.
This is why I suspect that the dual-threat quarterback will end up being more fad than revolution.
When the Rams realized that Jared Goff would be unable to start, they didn’t have to abandon their offense. If Wolford wasn’t able to operate the full complexity of the system, he was nonetheless able to run some of Goff’s offense, and the Rams were able to match the parts that he was comfortable with.
In fact, since John is noticeably more mobile than Jared, the Rams were able to add into the offense the kind of designed runs that worked so well for them last Sunday. Conversely, no amount of preparation could make Streveler comfortable in Murray’s offense because Chris doesn’t add the critical piece to this offense that Kyler does.
Arizona’s offensive identity is as one of football’s best running teams. They entered the game averaging 4.7 yards per rush, their 145.9 rushing yards per game ranked third in the league, and their 22 rushing touchdowns were the second most. The problem here is that Arizona’s elite running attack is fitted tightly around Kyler Murray’s legs. Going into the game, he was responsible for half of their rushing touchdowns and more than a third of their rushing yards. Remove his 54.5 rushing yards per game from the team total, and Arizona immediately falls into the lower half of the league’s running attacks.
Kyler’s edge speed might have been Arizona’s equalizer against the stout defensive line of Los Angeles’ third-ranked run defense (allowing 94.1 yards per game, and 3.8 per rush). Without that outside aspect to worry about, the Rams inhaled Arizona’s formerly elite running attack.
Donald and Fox
Discussion of the Los Angeles defense always begins – as it should – with tackle Aaron Donald. As usual, Aaron was a force against the Cardinals. Also catching my eye, though, was fourth-year defender Morgan Fox. As the season has gone on, and his opportunities have increased, Fox has been developing into an impact player on the Ram defensive line.
Morgan, of course, got the sack that knocked Murray out for most of the game. His work against the Cardinal running game was equally impressive, as his improving technique allows his natural strength to impact games.
Barely a minute into the game, with Murray still under center, the Cards faced a second-and-three on their own 43. The run design would send Kenyan Drake off right tackle, with left tackle D.J. Humphries pulling to lead through the hole. But Fox slipped under the pads of right tackle Kelvin Beachum and drove him into the backfield – into the pulling lineman that had come to open the hole, creating something of a train wreck in the Arizona backfield. Morgan then sifted through the bodies until he found the running back and pulled him to the ground.
He made a similar play on the left side with 2:32 left in the first half – the Cards facing second-and-six on their own 24. This time he drove Humphries into the backfield and tossed him to one side before corralling Drake. Game by game, Morgan is developing into a worthy line-mate of the great Aaron Donald.
At only 6-1, Aaron isn’t the tallest of defensive linemen – a characteristic that actually helps him gain leverage – but one look suggests that he is one of the strongest players in the NFL. That would be an accurate assessment.
With 12:50 left in the first quarter, Arizona was sending Drake off right tackle again. Donald lined up on the left side over guard Justin Pugh. With the play going away from Aaron, Arizona apparently thought they would be okay pulling Pugh to the right side and asking center Mason Cole to cross-block on Donald.
After getting underneath Cole’s attempted block, Donald drove him all the way across the formation, eventually pushing Cole out of the way and tackling Drake two yards deep in the backfield.
But for as strong as Aaron is, it’s his quickness and intelligence that sets him apart.
There’s 5:46 left in the game, and Arizona faces a first-and-fifteen from the Ram 45. Donald lines up over the right shoulder of right guard Justin Murray. One second before the snap, Aaron jumps to the other side of Murray so that he is in what they call the “A” gap – that space between the center and guard. Almost immediately after he arrived at that new position, the ball was snapped, and Aaron flew past Murray in one fluid motion. The moment that Kyler (who was then back in the game) handed the ball to Chase Edmonds, Aaron was there to harvest him for a three-yard loss.
About five minutes earlier, Kyler called the read-option. At the snap, Aaron immediately took away the inside run, executing a swim move on Pugh that you almost have to run the tape in slow motion to see.
Clearly unable to hand the ball off, Kyler pulled it back and tried to make it to the edge. His problem now was Fox – the unblocked end that he was supposed to “read.” Seeing that Donald had taken away the inside run, Morgan realized that he didn’t have to crash inside, and stayed wide to play the quarterback keeper.
Out of other options, Kyler tried to outrace Morgan to the edge – and on another day, he just might have. But Murray’s ankle injury cost him just enough speed that he couldn’t quite get past Fox. Morgan grabbed his shoulder as he was passing and pulled him down for a four-yard loss.
By game’s end, Arizona had rushed for nearly 100 yards below their season average. They finished with 48 yards and a 2.7 average (2 yards below their season average). In the second half, they gained 7 yards on 7 carries. This is not a formula for victory for the Cards.
Rams Next Get the Seahawks
Onward and upward for the Rams will lead them back into Seattle for the second time in three weeks for another inter-division rematch. The teams split their first two meeting this year, with the Rams winning 23-16 in Week Ten, and the Hawks getting their revenge, 20-9, in Week 16 (the win that clinched the division for them).
Of all of the WildCard games, this is the hardest to call – made none the easier by the uncertainty of Goff’s injury. Will he play? How well will he play if he does?
Even beyond those questions, we have two teams that know each other inside and out. Add to the fact that Seattle’s offense hasn’t looked in sync against a winning team since they lost a 44-34 contest to Buffalo in Week Nine.
This one reads like a coin flip going in. I’m going to lean to the Seahawks, only because they are the most comfortable in these kinds of tight, one-score games
On some level, it feels only fitting that one of these rivals should be the one to end the other’s season.