Cardinals lose their QB, but never their moxie with Arians in charge

BY Ross Jones • December 12, 2014

The Arizona Cardinals' next-man up mantra has kept them atop the NFC standings for most of this season. But that mantra took on a new meaning Thursday night in St. Louis — and the man behind it sent his loudest message to doubters yet . . . and the Rams were squarely in his crosshairs.

Despite coming into the game in first place in the NFC West and holding the top seed in the playoffs, the 10-3 Cardinals were underdogs to the 6-7 Rams. And when starting QB Drew Stanton went down with a knee injury with the score tied at 3-3 early in the third quarter, it looked like the oddsmakers knew what they were talking about.

But, as Stanton had done when original starter Carson Palmer tore his ACL in Arizona's first meeting with St. Louis this season, head coach Bruce Arians simply turned to his bench, put in his backup, and expected him to deliver.

Ryan Lindley's first pass — on his first play in the game — gave the Cardinals six yards, gave kicker Chandler Catanzaro just enough room to kick through a 51-yard field goal, and put Arizona in the lead for good in a 12-6 road victory.

The ramifications of Stanton's injury, however serious it may be, are not yet known. What is known, however, is that whoever plays QB in Week 16, Arians will instill confidence in them, and will expect the Cardinals' train to keep on rolling.

Arians' words match his actions

The Rams' status as favorites, the attention given to St. Louis' defense, the perceived holes in the Cardinals' roster due to injuries and experience . . . none of that was lost on Arians. But remember, this is the guy who filled in for Chuck Pagano when the Indianapolis coach was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, and led the Colts (1-15 the season before) to the playoffs with rookie QB Andrew Luck.

On Thursday night, after once again rallying the troops to a victory, Arians sounded off to the gathered media.

On the doubters and the Rams:

"I love it when nobody says you have a chance to win. There is an 11-3 team and a team that is always 8-8. You figure it out."

On the hype surrounding the St. Louis defense, which entered Thursday night riding back-to-back shutouts:

"Everybody wanted to talk all that stuff about how great their defense is. I think they saw a good defense tonight, it was in red and white."

On his team's 143 rushing yards:

"We blocked them. I think they had been reading their press clippings way too much."

While the extent of Stanton's injury is unknown — Arians would only say that Stanton had a knee injury and would undergo an MRI exam — replacing Stanton won't be easy if he misses time. But the Cardinals resiliency to this point could start paying off for them with the playoffs on the horizon.

With their 11-3 record, the Cardinals remain in first place and in the No. 1 spot in the NFC. Now they get a mini-bye week to get Lindley or rookie Logan Thomas a little more up to speed, and have the breathing room in the standings to give Weeks 16 and 17 a chance to serve as a good indicator for how the team will perform in January.

Lindley, who had been on the Chargers' practice squad until last month, replaced Stanton and was ice cold off the sideline. That didn't deter Arians from challenging the Rams downfield. Lindley completed 4 of 10 passes for 30 yards, but also drew some penalties on the Rams when he threw deep. Sure, the prospect of turning to Lindley or Thomas for a playoff run isn't the most appealing, but with Arians willing to scream to the world the confidence he has in his guys, there may not be a team in better shape to shoot for the Super Bowl with their No. 3 QB.

More on that defense and special teams

The quarterback situation got the biggest headlines, but most of Thursday's game was dominated by field position and special teams.

Rams running back Tre Mason fumbled — forced by Frostee Rucker and recovered by Larry Foote — in the second quarter, setting up the first of Catanzaro’s four field goals, a 23-yarder. The three points snapped a Rams' 86-0 scoring streak. The Rams, however, have still not allowed a touchdown in 12 consecutive quarters.

The Cardinals also dominated the line of scrimmage, running for those 143 yards on offense, sacking the Rams' Shaun Hill twice, and holding a time-of-possession advantage of nearly nine minutes.

That second half with Lindley under center could serve beneficial next week as the Cardinals host Seattle on Sunday night with a chance to clinch the division.

And the Cardinals don't win — Thursday's game and several games before it — without the foot of Catanzaro. During a stellar rookie season, Catanzaro has proven to be the difference in a handful of games this season as the Cardinals are 7-0 in games that are decided by 10 or less points.

"Our kicker got it between the poles this time." Arians said. "And did a heck of a job kicking it off."

Replacing Andre Ellington

The wear and tear on the Cardinals' second-year running back reached critical mass on Monday morning as the team placed him on the season-ending injured reserve. Ellington, who missed last week with the hip injury, has been spelled by the duo of Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor.

On Thursday night, the duo amassed 136 yards on 29 carries, and each showed off their unique skillset. Williams runs with toughness and has the ability to hide behind offensive linemen and explode through holes, while Taylor, operating in nearly an even timeshare, is a cog between the tackles to move the chains.

Rams' hot streak hits snag

Winning their last three of four games entering this contest, the Rams had faint hopes of making the playoffs (though they would have needed a near-miracle to get there). But with the loss, St. Louis (6-8) is officially eliminated from postseason contention.

Against the Cardinals, the Rams' pass rush was non-existent and their offense at one point punted on eight consecutive drives. On the ground, after coming into the game with at least 60 yards in four straight games, rookie running back Tre Mason was held to 33 yards on 13 carries and the turnover. As a team, St. Louis had 69 yards rushing on 20 carries. In Week 10, the Cardinals held the Rams to 70 yards on 22 carries; Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles certainly knows how to defend the run.

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