Matthew Stafford is off to an MVP-type start, and as a quarterback not known for his mobility, making him uncomfortable in the pocket would seem to be priority No. 1 for the Cardinals Sunday against the Rams.
But one of the reasons Stafford is off to an MVP-type start is that it's been difficult to get to him.
Stafford has only been sacked three times while destroying defenses with his passing – a 129.8 passer rating and nine touchdowns, with only one interception – and the Cardinals know what awaits if they can't get some kind of consistent pressure. The Rams (and the Cardinals, for that matter) have among the best graded pass protection this season.
"The number one our job up front is to get there," defensive lineman J.J. Watt said. "We know you have to stop the run to get to the pass and they obviously like to pass a little bit more. No matter what the situation is you have to get back there.
"If they are getting the ball out of there fast, you have to find ways to affect the throw and affect the quarterback, no matter what that means. It doesn't necessarily mean getting back there and making a sack or knocking down a pass. It can be the screen game, getting out there and making a tackle. But our number one job is to affect the passing game."
Watt is still seeking his first sack as a Cardinal. Chandler Jones had five in the first game but doesn't have one since, although defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said Jones had a good game in Jacksonville.
"The sacks sometimes aren't what speaks to him playing well," Joseph said. "Last week he had four or five quarterback hits, he had a caused interception that we dropped. He did play well last week."
For all the experience both Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins have, Stafford is the best quarterback – and the Rams the best offense – the Cardinals have faced so far. Marrying Stafford to Sean McVay's offense has had the intended effect.
"He was a freakshow at that position, and his skillset is really getting a chance to show in Sean's offense," Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
The Cardinals had two sacks last week, and both came late in the game with the Jaguars trying desperately to rally.
"It's easy to say you're getting after the passer when you're getting sacks but it's also about pressure, getting him off the spot, making sure he isn't just sitting back there throwing a clear pass," linebacker Markus Golden said. "You want to get the sacks, but some days you can be disruptive without getting a sack."
PUGH, JUSTIN MURRAY, BEACHUM GAME-DAY DECISIONS
Guards Justin Pugh and Justin Murray, each of whom are dealing with back problems, were out practicing Friday and will be game-day decisions, Kingsbury said. Sean Harlow and Max Garcia are the backups, respectively, if one or both cannot play.
Right tackle Kelvin Beachum (ribs) did not practice, but Kingsbury also did not rule him out. If Beachum can't go, Josh Jones will play right tackle. Running back Eno Benjamin (hamstring), who was hurt in practice this week, has been ruled out.
For the Rams, wide receiver TuTu Atwell (illness) is questionable. Running back Darrell Henderson (ribs) is also listed as questionable, but McVay said Friday Henderson would play.
CONNER PLAYS DONALD FOR FIRST TIME
Cardinals running back James Conner is coming off his first touchdowns with his new team last weekend when he got to the end zone twice, and now he gets to play against college teammate Aaron Donald for the first time Sunday. Conner was on the Steelers' in 2019 when they played the Rams, but Conner didn't play because of injury.
"That's like a big brother to me," Conner said of Donald, who was a senior at the University of Pittsburgh when Conner was a freshman. "I know he's going to bring it, he's going to try and slam me. I'm coming with it too."
Conner was asked what he'll tell backup guards Sean Harlow and Max Garcia if they are pushed into service against Donald.
"To be ready -- and I'll be there to help," Conner said with a chuckle.