The New Orleans Saints return home this weekend after two consecutive victories on the road, and six wins in a row. Their welcome home present is a meeting with the undefeated Los Angeles Rams, who have the one of the NFL's most explosive and diversified offenses. The Rams have the league's 3rd highest point production in the league this season, averaging 33 points per game (the Saints are second at 33.4), and their 443 total yards per game is the second highest in the NFL. The Saints defense is playing with more aggressiveness and higher confidence with each week. They still rank just 23rd in total yardage (374 per game) and points allowed (an average of 26.1/game), but have allowed more than 23 points just twice this season. They will now be tested against perhaps the most imaginative offense in the league. Let's have a look at some of the key matchups to watch when the Saints defense lines up across from the Rams offense.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. RAMS PASS OFFENSE
Newly acquired Saints cornerback Eli Apple got his first start for the team on Sunday against Minnesota, just five days after being added in a trade with the Giants. Apple would wind up leading his new team in tackles, and despite two penalties, showed the type of man to man coverage ability that the defense had been lacking opposite of Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore. The Saints hope that Apple's coverage skills will shore up what had been a glaring weakness for a 23rd ranked pass defense that is giving up 300 yards per contest. Marshon Lattimore is one of the better corners in the league, but the team has been extremely vulnerable with P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley, often heavily targeted by opponents. If Apple proves to be a solid compliment to Lattimore, then safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell will be freed up for other coverage responsibilities, including extra support for Williams and Crawley when they're in the lineup. The communication in the secondary has been greatly improved, and New Orleans had not allowed a 300-yd. passer in the previous three games before Minnesota's Kirk Cousins threw for 359 last week. The Saints pass rush, especially from the defensive line, has been the strength of the team's pass defense. They sacked Cousins four times, and have 17 sacks on the year, with 15 coming from the defensive front. End Cameron Jordan is having another All-Pro campaign, and leads the team with 5 sacks and ten quarterback hits. Rookie Marcus Davenport (4 sacks) is making a bigger impact each week, and has already shown why New Orleans traded up in the draft to select him. Tackle Sheldon Rankins (4sacks) is having a pro bowl season of his own. His disruptive presence in the middle not only collapses a pass pocket, but can change opposing blocking schemes, potentially putting Jordan or Davenport in one on one opportunities on the outside. The Saints linebackers have all proven to be effective blitzers, but have also been able to match up well in coverage against opposing backs and tight ends, taking some pressure off the secondary.
Third year Rams quarterback Jared Goff leads a passing attack that averages 292 yards per game, 7th best in the league, and is already one of the NFL's top signal callers. He has one of the strongest arms in the game, and very good athleticism to move away from the rush. He has three versatile wideouts to throw to in Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and former Saints playmaker Brandin Cooks, along with solid depth in Josh Reynolds and kick returner JoJo Natson. Kupp, who has 30 catches for 438 yards and a team high five scores, has missed the last two games with a knee injury but looks like he could be back this week. Woods is the team's leading receiver with 46 catches for 672 yards and 3 scores, while Cooks (35-643yds., 2 td) has been a big addition to the offense, adding another big play element. Rams running back Todd Gurley is nearly as dangerous coming out of the backfield as a receiver as he is a runner, catching 31 passes for 351 yards and 4 touchdowns. Goff has been sacked 17 times so far this year, but went down five times last week against Green Bay and five more times two weeks before that against the Denver Broncos.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints CB's vs. Rams WR's ~
Goff threw for 354 yards and 2 scores in the Rams 26-20 over New Orleans last season, although he was sacked four times. Saints cornerbacks Lattimore and Crawley both missed last season's matchup however, out with injury. Without them, Kupp and the since-departed Sammy Watkins combined for 12 catches and 198 yards. Kupp's quickness in returning from his knee injury is worth watching, but the Rams use all of their wideouts effectively on bubble screens and deadly crossing patterns to get them in open space. Lattimore and Apple will be challenged athletically, but will look to match up in man coverage, and all the Saints defensive backs must be physical with the shifty Los Angeles receivers.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. RAMS RUN OFFENSE
The Saints continue to lead the league in run defense, allowing opponents only 3.2 yards per rush and surrendering just 74 yards per game on the ground. Linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein have been dominant as run defenders, and are the team leaders in tackles. The New Orleans defensive linemen are consistently winning their showdowns up front, not only pushing into the offensive backfield, but often allowing the linebackers free reign to opposing backs. Defensive tackles Taylor Stallworth and Tyeler Davison team with Rankins to give the Saints a wall in the middle, while Alex Okafor, Cam Jordan, and Davenport are good run defenders along the edge. Vonn Bell provides excellent run support from his safety position, and linebackers Manti Te'o, Craig Robertson, and Alex Anzalone are aggressive in flowing to the ball and keeping containment.
The Rams have the NFL's top ranked rushing attack, averaging 151 yards per game and 4.8 per carry. Todd Gurley has gashed defenses for 800 yards and 11 touchdowns, and is one of the (non-quarterback) midseason leaders for league M.V.P. The Rams use their receivers very effectively on end arounds, often resulting in a big gain when defenses crash inside on Gurley and lose containment responsibilities. Goff and the high flying passing game may get the headlines, but the Los Angeles offense centers around the abilities of Gurley, perhaps the best all-around back in the league.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints LB's vs. Gurley ~
Gurley had 74 yards rushing and 54 receiving when these teams met last November, but the Rams had a heavy emphasis on the pass due to the absence of Lattimore and Crawley in the Saints lineup. Davis, Klein, and the rest of the improved New Orleans linebacking corps will face their most daunting task of the year. Gurley already has 1,151 yards from scrimmage this season and an eye-popping 15 touchdowns. He is just as dangerous bouncing a play to the outside as he is between the tackles. The New Orleans defense must get immediate hits on the talented running back to keep him from destroying them in the open field.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
The Rams have failed to score 30 points just twice this season, but both have come within the last three weeks, games where Goff was sacked a combined 10 times. New Orleans brought the Rams quarterback down four times in last year's game, and three times in a 2016 home win against Los Angeles, with Jordan totaling 3 sacks himself. The Saints run defense must be up to the task of at least slowing the dynamic Gurley, and put the onus on Goff to beat them. The Saints linebackers must be fast and precise in their coverage drops when L.A. does throw, hopefully altering the Rams crossing routes and impeding Goff's throwing lanes. Expect the New Orleans secondary to physical early at the line of scrimmage against the smaller Los Angeles wideouts. Lattimore and Apple are most effective at that style of play, and Brandin Cooks in particular (as Saints fans know) has struggled against physical man coverage.
Which is the most vital matchup for the Saints defense against the Los Angeles offense?
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Saints corners vs. Rams wideouts
Jordan/Davenport vs. Rams OT's Andrew Whitworth/Rob Haverstein
Rankins/Stallworth/Davison vs. Rams interior o-line
Saints LB's vs. Gurley