The New Orleans Saints are looking to extend their winning streak to nine games, and remain in control of the NFC South division. To do so, they will have to overcome numerous key injuries on the defensive side of the ball, and on the road, against the NFC West leading Los Angeles Rams.
Let's have a look at how the New Orleans defense matches up against a balanced Rams offense.
Saints pass defense vs. Rams pass offense
New Orleans struggled mightily against Kirk Cousins and the Redskins a week ago, giving up 322 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. The Saints stepped up late, however, shoring up coverage and getting a late sack to help snuff out a Washington drive. The Saints were without injured linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro in their starting lineup, and lost star rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore on the first drive of the game to an ankle injury. Klein and Vaccaro look like good bets to play against Los Angeles, but Lattimore has been ruled out, as has fellow cornerback Ken Crawley, with an oblique injury.
In addition, New Orleans lost defensive end Alex Okafor for the season to a torn Achilles tendon. Okafor had brought an improved pass rushing presence opposite Cam Jordan, and the Saints will look to replace him with rookie 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson and Hau'oli Kikaha on the edge, and hope to get improved pass rush production from defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata.
Jordan leads an improved Saints pass rush with 8 sacks so far this year, and the defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times, Hendrickson and Kikaha combining for five takedowns. New Orleans began this winning streak as a blitz heavy team, but have reduced that slightly over the last few weeks. They may rethink that strategy, given the loss of Okafor and the fact that they are facing an inexperienced 2nd year quarterback in the Rams Jared Goff.
Vaccaro's 3 interceptions leads the team, which has 10 interceptions on the season, but the absence of Lattimore and Crawley is a heavy burden. Lattimore in particular had already blossomed into a magnificent shutdown corner, and among the favorites for defensive rookie of the year. New Orleans will look to P.J. Williams and the recently re-signed Sterling Moore for primary coverage duties at cornerback. Williams has been inconsistent this season, and struggled against Washington wideouts, but has the physical ability to provide solid coverage.
Moore brings experience, knowledge of the defensive system, and played well for the Saints in spots year ago. Recent signee Dexter McDougle brings decent experience from a 3-yr. career with the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles, and could compete for snaps with the struggling De'vante Harris. Safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams have each been inconsistent at times this season, but the Saints trio of Vaccaro, Bell, and Williams are athletic and versatile.
Los Angeles retooled their 31st ranked passing game from a year ago under coach Sean McVay, and now rank 9th at 255 yards per game. Jared Goff has played at times like last year's first overall pick, throwing for 2,610 yards and 16 scores with only 4 interceptions. While the Saints are dealing with injury issues on the defensive side of the ball, the Rams have an injury problem of their own offensively.
Wide receiver Robert Woods is expected to miss multiple weeks with a shoulder injury. Woods was the Rams leading receiver, with 47 catches for 703 yards. Cooper Kupp (38 receptions, 481 yards and 3 scores) has been a solid compliment, and has the confidence of his quarterback, but Los Angeles is expecting former 1st round picks Sammy Watkins and Tavon Austin to step up their level of play.
Neither Austin, the 8th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2013 draft by the (St. Louis) Rams or Watkins, the 4th overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2014, have ever lived up to expectation. Watkins has had some moments since being obtained by the Rams in a preseason trade, producing 408 receiving yards and tying for the team lead with four touchdown receptions. Los Angeles tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett produce little, combining for just 27 receptions, but help bolster a Rams offensive line that has allowed only 15 sacks.
Saints run defense vs. Rams run offense
The Saints rush defense ranks 20th in the league, and the loss of Okafor may be a bigger loss in defending the run than in the pass rush. New Orleans struggled against Washington running back Samaje Perine last week, allowing him to run for 117 yards and a score. Perine was the fourth back to break 100 yards rushing against New Orleans, and the Saints have consistently given up one or two big gains on the ground per contest, particularly early in games.
Vonn Bell has played the run well from his safety position, and linebackers Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o pursue well sideline to sideline, but Klein and Vaccaro's return to the lineup will bolster the run defense. Defensive tackles Rankins and Onyemata must be disruptive inside, and tie up multiple blockers to allow the Saints linebackers and safeties to close gaps and cutback lanes.
Los Angeles running back Todd Gurley is their feature back, and has run for 791 yards and 8 touchdowns for the Rams' 9th ranked rushing attack. The explosive third year back has rushed for 100 yards in four games, and is tied with Mark Ingram for the league lead in rushing touchdowns. Tavon Austin is often used on misdirection out of the backfield, and is quick enough to make a defense pay for overpursuit and poor angles. He has the second most rush yards on the team, with 171 yards.
What to Look For
Although the Saints came up with some big plays down the stretch against the Redskins, the defense had its worst overall performance since week two. The biggest questions and challenges are how well they can perform without Lattimore, Okafor, and Crawley.
When these teams played last season, a 49-21 New Orleans victory, the Rams were limited to just 69 yards rushing and rookie quarterback Goff was sacked 3 times. Los Angeles has improved balance this time around, and will be a challenge for a battered Saints defense. New Orleans must contain Gurley, and shut off cutback lanes against the Rams talented runner to limit big plays. The suddenly shorthanded secondary will likely need a big performance from it's safeties, and must be able to apply pressure on Jared Goff, hopefully forcing the 2nd year quarterback into rushing his reads and turnovers.
Which Saints defender will step up the most in the absences of Lattimore, Crawley, and Okafor?
This poll is closed