Look for Pierre Thomas to run away from the Rams defense and remind everyone that he's pretty damn good. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Many expected the Rams to "turn the corner" this year and make a push for a playoff appearance. Sam Bradford had an excellent rookie campaign that culminated with a "win and you're in" week 17 showdown for the division with the Seahawks. Saints fans know how that one turned out. Looking at the NFC west and the quarterback "situations" for the 49ers, Seahawks, and Cardinals, it seemed a no-brainer that the Rams would be the only strong team in the division at the start of the 2011 season. The Rams have been anything but, and have managed to look weak in every aspect of the game from the start.
A major reason for this is the injury bug. The Rams started the season without WR Mark Clayton (who was on the PUP list after a resurgent year as a 2010 acquisition), and lost slot receiver Danny Amendola for the year in the first game, along with RB Steven Jackson for an extended period of time. Before the Rams finished their first half of the first game of this season, they were already missing their three biggest offensive contributors from last season.
With the groin injury to Justin King, the Rams are now without their top five cornerbacks from the opening day roster. In short, the Rams' offense found itself ineffective from before halftime of their first game, and the defense is down to a secondary made up of guys who normally wouldn't be on any roster. It's no wonder they're going nowhere fast.
The Rams added WR Austin Pettis, TE Lance Kendricks, and WR Greg Salas in the draft, but no OTAs and a shortened offseason limited how quickly they've been able to make significant contributions. Last week they traded for Brandon Lloyd who was able to make an immediate impact because Josh McDaniels (his coach last year in Denver) is running the same offense as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. Steven Jackson is as healthy as can be expected and Danario Alexander has shown flashes (though he is fighting a hamstring strain), but with Sam Bradford likely out of the lineup, I really don't see how their offense can pose much of a threat. In addition, the Rams will be without Jason Smith at tackle and Roger Saffold is playing hurt, so they'll have trouble protecting AJ Feeley.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Rams have understandably looked terrible. I've already mentioned the fact that the Rams are down to their sixth, seventh, and eighth CBs playing the role of starting LCB, starting RCB, and nickel CB (considered a starter because a NCB plays more than 50% of the defensive snaps on every team on average over the last three years), but I felt I'd mention it again for added emphasis. I've already discussed the offensive woes, so when you add the two together, what do you think happens?
Any strength they've had on defense heading into the season quickly wore out before the first month of football was played. Think of the Indianapolis Colts last week: their undersized defense was built to rush the passer while protecting a Peyton Manning-built lead; not grind it out and stuff the run in a close game. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis simply get worn down by virtue of having to play more run defense and having to stay on the field longer because their offense doesn't have many sustaining drives. The Rams' defense is built differently than the Colts, but the result is the same due to similar offensive ineptitude and a much depleted secondary.
Sunday, you can expect a game following much the same script as the Saints domination of the Colts not one week ago. The offense, and Drew Brees, will be turning a corner (or three) because there is no way the St. Louis secondary can handle this Gulf Coast Offense. The running game got plenty of repetitions while Sean Peyton tried to be merciful last week; expect a heavy dose in the fourth quarter once again - reminiscent of 2009. It will help the offense turn a much-needed corner because as the season progresses, the offensive line and stable of RBs will be in their groove when it is time to pick up that third and short or punch it in from the goal line. Maybe with Ingram resting his bruised heel, we'll see Chris ivory for the first time (please please pretty please).
The defense finally forced some turnovers last week, and I expect to see more in the form of a couple of interceptions and a sack/fumble. They still have to do their job and stop Steven Jackson while Drew Brees builds a lead. Brandon Lloyd and Danario Alexander (if he plays) can prove difficult assignments for our CBs, but I don't see Feeley having enough time or rhythm to consistently exploit the weaknesses in the zone or height discrepancies. This game SHOULD be out of reach by halftime. The only way the Rams stick around is if the Saints players aren't focused, and you see uncharacteristic drops, fluke turnovers, inexplicable breakdowns in protection, and Steven Jackson looking like a world-beater and singlehandedly keeping the game close against an offense that looks "off" for no good reason.
I don't believe the Saints will overlook the Rams. Sean Payton's team already let a woeful Ram team give them a scare in 2009 and lost to a winless Rams team not long before that. They know the Rams are desperate for a win and they know Spags will come in with a good game plan and Steven Jackson can make them look silly. The Saints need to hit on all cylinders and win this game in order to gain separation in the NFC South from Tampa and Atlanta.
This isn't a Baltimore versus Jacksonville trap. The Saints don't struggle on offense like the Ravens, and the Rams don't play tough on defense like the Jaguars. The Rams simply don't have strength in areas of a Saints exploitable weakness. I think the Saints have a great locker room and Brees, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, and Marques Colston still have much more to prove. I think Pierre Thomas is looking to take full advantage of a Mark Ingram absence, and I think the Saints come out on fire and win 45-13 while out-rushing the Rams and resting many banged-up players on defense in the process.
2. Saints - 34.1 points per game, 467 yards per game, 6.5 yards per play, 58% 3rd down conversion, 33:07 time of possession, -4 turnover margin
28. Rams - 9.3 points per game, 301 ypg, 4.6 ypp, 29% 3rd down, 27:40 TOP, -2 turnovers
Passing Offense -
2. Saints - 341 ypg, 8.3 yards per attempt, 70.9% completion, 18 TD, 8 INT, (28) 20+ yard pass completions, 13 sacks given up, 104.6 QB rating
23. Rams - 208 ypg, 6.0 ypa, 53.4% completion, 3 TD, 3 INT, (16) 20+ yard pass, 23 sacks, 70.4 QB rating
Rushing Offense -
9. Saints - 126 ypg, 4.6 yards per carry, 7 TD, 2 Fumbles, (5) 20+ yard runs
26. Rams - 93 ypg, 4.2 ypc, 2 TD, 5 Fum, (2) 20+ yard runs
14. Saints - 22.6 ppg, 349 ypg, 5.8 ypp, 39% 3rd down, 3 fumble recoveries
29. Rams - 28.5 ppg, 410 ypg, 6.1 ypp, 43% 3rd down, 3 FR
Pass Defense -
13. Rams - 227 ypg, 7.4 ypa, 55.7% completion, 13 TD, 4 INT, (20) 20+ yard pass, 11 sacks, 93.3 QB rating
16. Saints - 234 ypg, 6.9 ypa, 52.9% completion, 12 TD, 4 INT, (19) 20+ yard pass, 15 sacks, 84.0 QB rating
Rush Defense -
15. Saints - 116 ypg, 5.4 ypc, 5 TD, 3 FR, (7) 20+ yard runs
32. Rams - 184 ypg, 5.5 ypc, 5 TD, 3 FR, (7) 20+ yard runs
Overall Statistical Analysis: Do you find it surprising that despite the loss of their top five CBs that St. Louis has a higher-ranked pass defense than the Saints? Don't be. Teams don't have to throw much against the Rams because the Rams offense has been inept. As soon as teams get a double-digit lead, they run it down St. Louis's throat, which happens not long after the game is underway. Is the Rams rush defense really that horrible, or is the Saints rush defense that much better? They give up about the same yards per carry, but the only difference is that teams run less against the Saints in an effort to keep pace or catch-up with the scoring output of a Drew Brees-led offense. The most telling stats are the Rams points per game, 3rd down conversion % on offense, and time of possession on offense. It all goes hand in hand. The wheels fell off before the first checkpoint, and the Rams offense hasn't gone anywhere - nor will it on Sunday.
Season Total : 68 wins, 35 losses
Last Week: 9 wins, 4 losses
Average: 10 wins, 5 losses
Last Year: 157 wins, 99 losses
Best Year: 170 wins, 86 losses
This Week's Picks:
Chiefs over Chargers - Upset #1, *Upset Special* - If the Chiefs win this game, they'll be tied for first in their division and that horrible 0-3 start will be forgotten. San Diego has its flaws, and Romeo Crennel has gotten KC's defense back on track. The Chiefs found a running back to carry the load, and Matt Cassel is starting to look like a quality QB once again. San Diego just took a devastating emotional blow to the ego, and they've not looked dominant all year. I think the Chiefs want it more with a Confidence of 1.
Eagles over Cowboys - Jason Garrett learned an important lesson: how often to run the ball and with which RB to do so with. Philadelphia is suspect in rush defense while in their "wide 9s", but on the other hand, they can get to the QB and Tony Romo doesn't do well when he is getting smacked around. Also, Andy Reid is 12-0 as a head coach coming off the bye-week, and the game is in Phili, so I'll take the Eagles offense to finally soar while their defense does enough to make Romo have an Aaron Brooks moment with a Confidence of 2.
Panthers over Vikings - Christian Ponder looked pretty good in his first start. Cam Newton defies any description of a great prototypical NFL QB, yet he's on his way to becoming just that. There isn't much tape on Ponder yet, but I trust Newton's repertoire with his targets more than the limited exposure Ponder has had with his with a Confidence of 3.
49ers over Browns - Part of me wants this to be the game in which the Niners come back down to earth, but they just seem too much of a well-coached team while the Browns don't yet have it figured out on offense. I'm a big Colt McCoy fan, and I have a hard time putting any faith in Alex Smith, but I don't have any evidence to pick otherwise. So I'll be on the Harbaugh bandwagon with a Confidence of 4.
Texans over Jaguars - I'd love nothing more than to see Jacksonville upset the Texans, but unlike the Ravens, Houston's offense isn't so Jeckyll and Hyde. The Jags do have a tough defense, but I don't believe Blaine Gabbert has the confidence to be decisive and make enough plays. MJD can only do so much, and with a good QB, Foster can do more, so I'll take the Texans with a Confidence of 5.
Bengals over Seahawks - How in the world did Charlie Whitehurst and the rest of that Seahawk team look so inept against the Browns? I guess losing Marshawn Lynch will have that effect. Even if Seattle has Tarvaris Jackson and Lynch healthy for this game, I like the Bengals because, well, I like the Bengals. I'll take their defense and Bernard Scott with a Confidence of 6.
Patriots over Steelers - The Steelers like to rush the passer on the edge. If you want to get to Tom Brady, it has to be in his face, through the middle. The Steelers like to play zone and do not have a CB who can match up with Wes Welker. Their LBs strengths are rushing the passer and stopping the run. They don't do well in pass coverage. How are they going to stop New England's tight end duo? Big Ben will have to throw a lot, and the Pats pass defense isn't so great, but the difference is that the Patriots coaching staff knows exactly how to stop the Steelers, and the Steelers have no clue how to stop Tom Brady. I like the Pats with a Confidence of 7.
Ravens over Cardinals - Something is broken in Arizona. Despite what he says, I don't believe Beanie Wells will be playing on Sunday, and I don't believe Kolb has it figured out yet. He's been a turnover machine, and the Ravens defense looked good even in that horrible loss to the Jags. The offense can't look any worse, so I expect them to rebound here with a Confidence of 8.
Lions over Broncos - Detroit is likely going to be with Jahvid Best, but the Broncos will be without Willis McGahee, so I think it evens itself out in that department. Look to see Keiland Williams have a nice day along with the Detroit pass rush. I'll take a gimpy Matthew Stafford over Tim Tebow with a Confidence of 9 as a Best Bet.
Bills over Redskins - When John Beck was the only QB on the roster (de facto starter) when the lockout ended, security wouldn't let him in the building because they didn't know who he was. That won't change, especially considering he lost his most reliable target in Santana Moss. I love the Bills with a Confidence of 10 as a Best Bet.
Titans over Colts - Why do I get the feeling I'll regret this pick on Monday? Strange things happen, and an embarrassed Colts team may catch a divided Titans team at the right time. Time for Chris Johnson to shut up and put out with a Confidence of 11 as a Best Bet.
Giants over Dolphins - While I have my reservations picking the Titans to win over a winless Colts team, I have no such problem picking the G-men to kill the Dolphins. Miami is the worst team in the NFL and will finish the year 1-15 at best. They have an idiot for an owner, a coach who's a dead man walking, and it will only get uglier. Eli isn't great, but he's good enough to get a win here with a Confidence of 12 as a Best Bet.
Saints over Rams - Drew Brees is on a roll, the Rams are depleted at skill positions in the passing game on both sides of the ball, and Sam Bradford's in a walking boot. I'll take the Saints with a Confidence of 13 as a Best Bet and the Lock Of The Week.