The New Orleans Saints did something they had not accomplished since 2006 in last week's win over the Minnesota Vikings. They won a game where quarterback Drew Brees failed to pass for at least 150 yards. It wasn't as if Brees played badly, he still competed 78% of his throws, but only attempted 23 passes. While that doesn't happen often, it shows that the Saints do not need a heavy emphasis on the pass to win football games. New Orleans, who have won six consecutive games, now face a star-studded defense in the undefeated Los Angeles Rams. Both teams have all pro caliber players on every level of this side of the ball, but today's preview shows us that key to the game might very well lie in the trenches.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. RAMS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints are averaging 282 yards per game through the air, ranking 9th in the league. Brees threw his first interception of the year last week against Minnesota, but is as sharp as he's ever been. The NFL's all-time leader in passing yardage and completions has thrown 14 touchdown passes this season, and has completed nearly 78% of his passes for 1,990 yards. The success of the New Orleans passing game runs not just through their legendary quarterback, but is also keyed by the abilities of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Thomas, the dominant third year wideout, has caught 58 of his 64 targets for 669 yards and 4 touchdowns. He has been almost unstoppable on short and intermediate routes, using his strength to win positioning against nearly every defensive back. Kamara, the reigning offensive rookie of the year, has added 47 receptions for 393 yards and two scores, all second best on the team. Kamara provides the ultimate mismatch, able to line up anywhere along the offensive formation and able to run any route. The Saints continue to have trouble getting their other weapons consistently involved in the passing game, increasing the pressure on Kamara and Thomas to produce. Rookie third round pick Tre'Quan Smith has flashed the potential of a solid number two receiver, and has been more involved in the offense over the last month, but has just ten catches for 191 yards and two scores. Offseason acquisition Cameron Meredith has been a disappointment thus far, catching only nine passes for 114 yards. Brees does trust his tight ends in short yardage situations, particularly Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill, who have combined for 31 receptions and 354 yards. The Saints offensive line has been exemplary in protecting their 39-yr. old quarterback, allowing just 9 sacks on Brees against some formidable pass rushers, and often giving him plenty of time while pass routes develop. Tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead are the best outside combination in the NFL, particularly in pass protection. The Saints interior trio of guards Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and center Max Unger give Brees clear passing lanes and a clean pocket to step up and buy time.
Los Angeles added a number of highly regarded veterans in the offseason, especially on the defensive side. They are still led by Aaron Donald, one of the finest defensive players in the league, but free agent pickup Ndamukong Suh gives the Rams perhaps the NFL's most disruptive pair of defensive tackles. Los Angeles then added 2015 3rd overall draft pick Dante Fowler in a trade with Jacksonville on Tuesday to bolster their edge rush alongside Michael Brockers, John Franklin-Myers, and Samson Ebukam. Brockers, a 2012 1st round pick, is a big bodied defender who can also move inside, is off to a bit of a slow start but is a handful for blockers. The Rams also added a number of big names to a secondary that has surrendered 231 yards per game passing, ranking tenth in the league. They will be without one injured all star, cornerback Aqib Talib, but still have Marcus Peters, Sam Shields, and Nickell Roby-Coleman to battle opposing wideouts. Peters in particular, is a playmaker in the secondary who has one interception this season, but 20 pickoffs in his four year career with four defensive touchdowns, including one this season. Los Angeles also has a capable duo at safety in LaMarcus Joyner and John Jackson, who are among the team leaders in tackles. The Rams defense is built to protect the early leads that their high powered offense often gives them, and they have 22 sacks and have forced 13 turnovers, including 7 interceptions.
~ Matchup to Watch: Andrus Peat/Larry Warford vs. Aaron Donald/Ndamukong Suh ~
Donald, has 49 sacks in just over five seasons, and leads the NFL with 10 sacks so far, already just one off his career best. Suh, who has 3 sacks this season, has 54.5 takedowns through his nine year career. The success of the Los Angeles defense starts with these two All-Pros, and opposing teams have yet to slow them down in 2018. Peat, Warford, and Unger are next in line for the task. Warford is a pro bowl caliber lineman, Unger is one of the better technicians in the game, and Peat looks healthy from the numerous injuries that had slowed him to start the year. Their ability to slow the fierce rush of Donald and Suh are undoubtedly one of the keys to the game. They must also manage to clear a path for the Saints running game, in order for New Orleans to have the offensive balance needed to sustain drives.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. RAMS RUN DEFENSE
Mark Ingram has yet to hit the form that paced him to over 900 yards rushing in three of the last four seasons. Ingram, who has 148 yards rushing and two scores in his 3 games since returning from a league suspension, is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. In Ingram's defense, the Saints have played three of the better defenses in the league since his return in Washington, Baltimore, and Minnesota. Kamara continues to lead the team in rushing, with 408 yards on 92 carries, 7 rushing touchdowns and two more 2-pt. conversions. Although coaches would prefer to get their playmaker in space so he can work his magic in the open field, Kamara has shown the ability to pick up tough yardage between the tackles. Backup quarterback Taysom Hill is used in new ways each week, but is basically an additional weapon in short yardage and goal line packages. Hill did complete a 44-yd. pass to Michael Thomas on their opening drive against the Vikings, but he is essentially a runner, able to add an additional threat on the ground. The Saints pick up the bulk of their rushing yards over the right side, where Warford and Ramczyk are athletic road graders who blow open initial holes then get to the second level quickly to create big plays. Peat is a mauler at left guard as well, but also creates vital cutback lanes for the Saints three headed rushing attack.
The Rams rank 12th against the run, an improvement from their 2017 number 28 ranking. They allow 101 yards per game on the ground, but opponents have gained 4.8 yards per carry. Lost amid all their big name acquisitions on defense was that Los Angeles lost two standout defenders in linebacker Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn. Some believed that the Rams defensive weakness would be at the linebacker position, but they have gotten some solid play. Corey Littleton leads the team in tackles, while Matt Longacre, Mark Barron, and Ebukam are versatile defenders.
~ Matchup to Watch: Mark Ingram/Alvin Kamara vs. Rams LB's ~
Los Angeles had no answer for Kamara in last year's meeting between the two. He caught 6 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown, and added 87 more on the ground in just five carries, including a career high 74-yd. touchdown run. Ingram may not have had a big statistical output yet, but he rushed for a season high 63 yards against the Vikings last week, and has performed well in the 4th quarter of each of the last two games. These two teams look evenly matched in most areas, but this is one spot that the Saints look to have a distinct advantage with the athletic ability and versatility that both Ingram and Kamara bring to the field.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, even moreso than most coordinators, predicates his scheme on putting heavy pressure on the offensive backfield. With such imposing defensive tackles, it would be a little surprising to see the Saints open up the game with a dropback passing attack. New Orleans has set a physical tone on their opening drive in the last few contests, and could have success by running straight at Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Brees had 246 yards passing and a score when these teams met a year ago, but was sacked three times. Outside of Kamara's long touchdown run, the Saints struggled a bit on the ground, averaging just 3 yards per rush and only attempting 17 runs against 35 pass attempts. Receiver Michael Thomas will have a key matchup with Marcus Peters when they line up across from each other. Peters, like Thomas, likes to play physical, and he's one of the most dangerous ballhawks in the league. Tre'Quan Smith and the other wideouts must be more productive to allow Brees to spread the ball around and keep the Rams defense off balance. Given the talent on the outside, don't be surprised to see the Saints utilize the tight end position more as well. Expect both Ingram and Kamara to be heavily involved in the New Orleans game plan, hoping to take advantage of what looks like a mismatch against the Rams linebackers. Early downs will be vital. The Saints were just 3 of 13 on 3rd downs last year against Los Angeles. Being in a 3rd and short situation will open up Payton's playbook a bit, and even more importantly keep the Ram rushers from pinning their ears back on Brees and the pass pocket. Much of the media is focused on the productive Rams offense, but remember that New Orleans has actually averaged more points per game (33.4). Offenses that have had success against the Rams defense this season have been able to match them toe to toe physically, but have also been able to maintain balance throughout most of the game. The New Orleans Saints have been able to establish a physical advantage in most of their games in each of the last two years, and they have more balanced offensive talent than anyone the Rams have yet to face during the 2018 season.
What is the most important match up for New Orleans offensive success against the Rams?
This poll is closed
Michael Thomas/Tre'Quan Smith vs. Marcus Peters/Sam Shields/Nickell Roby-Coleman
Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Brockers/Longacre/Fowler
Peat/Unger/Warford vs. Donald/Suh
Ingram/Kamara vs. Rams LB's
Sean Payton vs. Wade Phillips