Rams defense hitting on all cylinders

BY foxsports • December 9, 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Don't be fooled by the St. Louis Rams' 6-7 record. You could make a strong argument Thursday's night's game against the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome is the toughest of the three remaining on the Cardinals' schedule.

"They've pitched two shutouts in a row," Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton said. "We have to be good at what we want to do, get the game plan going and be good on third down."

It's been difficult to do much of anything against the Rams defense lately. St. Louis dominated in wins over the Raiders (52-0) and Redskins (24-0) the last two weeks. The last time the Rams posted consecutive shutouts was 1945, two franchise moves ago, in their final season in Cleveland before leaving for Los Angeles. No NFL team had done it since Dallas in 2009.

That wasn't the case earlier in the season when St. Louis gave up 31 points or more in five of its first seven games. Then, the Rams struggled through a host of injuries (much like the Cardinals) to key players such as cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and defensive end Chris Long -- guys who are now healthy.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the general health of the defense," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said of the team's recent success. "We're tackling, and that's a big part of some things that happened to us early in the year when we missed some tackles. I think the safety play has improved. Getting Trumaine and Janoris back has really helped the secondary. 

"And we're getting pressure. That's the challenge. We're built to protect that lead, to rush the passer when people have to throw it."

Man, are the Rams getting pressure. St. Louis has 13 sacks in its last two games and is tied for seventh in the league with 35 after a very slow start. Defensive end Robert Quinn, who finished second in the NFL last season with 19 sacks, has 4.5 in his last two games and is ninth in the NFL with 10.5 overall.

Fisher was quick to note that the offense has to do its part with time of possession and the special teams must provide good field position for the defense to have the kind of success it's enjoying right now. But St. Louis has allowed just 222 points on defense, second-fewest in the NFL and just one point more than Seattle. The overall numbers (285) are skewed by seven defensive touchdowns and two more on special teams.

The Cardinals have their work cut out for them.

"To me it's probably one of the best defenses in the NFL right now," Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "We've got to do a good job protecting the quarterback." 

Justin Bethel has no idea if or how much fellow cornerback Antonio Cromartie (ankle) will play Thursday in St. Louis. Consequently, Bethel has no idea what his role will be against the Rams.

"You all will know when I know," he said, laughing.

Bethel was very limited in Tuesday's practice after missing Monday's. whatever happens, the Cardinals and Bethel believe Bethel is much better equipped to step into a leading role than he was at the start of this, his third NFL season.

"He's moved up the depth chart in my mind," coach Bruce Arians said. "He's a starter; he has potential to be a starter in the league."

Bethel was an exceptional special teams performer his first two seasons in the NFL, earning a Pro Bowl berth last season in that role. But Bethel wants more.

"I love special teams and it's a role I would never mind doing," he said. "But as a competitor and a guy that feels like I have that talent to be a starter, I definitely would love to take my game to the next level and be a starter at some point."

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles believes Bethel has crossed the final threshold needed to take that step.

"He has the physical tools but from a mental standpoint he's seeing things a lot easier; he's a lot more comfortable playing," defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. "He plays a lot faster now. He hadn't seen some things in college that he's learning to play. He's grown into the corner pretty good." 

Cardinals: S Tyrann Mathieu (thumb) is out. RG Paul Fanaika (ankle) did not practice. CB Antonio Cromartie (ankle), WR Larry Fitzgerald (knee), LB Lorenzo Alexander (knee), LB Larry Foote (foot), LB Matt Shaughnessy (shoulder), QB Crew Stanton (ankle/knee), DT Ed Stinson (toe) and LT Jared Veldheer (ankle) were limited.

Rams: DE Chris Long (ankle) did not practice. WR Kenny Britt (non-injury), DT Alex Carrington (thigh), LB Will Herring (foot), LB James Laurinaitis (ankle), G Rodger Saffold (shoulder), C Scott Wells (elbow) and TE Cory Harkey (knee) were limited. 

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