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Interview with the Enemy: Saints could find early success running the ball against the Rams

Joseph McAtee of Turf Show Times joins us to preview our Week 9 matchup.

Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Another week of football, and another week of our Interview with the Enemy series. This week, our friend, Joseph McAteeof Turf Show Times, answers 5 quick questions about our week 9 matchup, a Battle of the Titans: the 8-0 Los Angeles Rams vs the 6-1 New Orleans Saints.

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The Rams offense has been as advertised through the first half of the season, but the Rams defense has seemingly struggled so far. What gives?

That’s one of the things that’s been really hard to adjust to is the standards of performance being raised for the Rams this year and even last given how things went for the prior decade and a half. The Rams’ defense is currently sixth in points allowed and eighth in yards allowed. Football Outsiders has them 10th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). By most overall metrics, it’s a solid defense though not one of the NFL’s best.

The clearest issue is run defense. The Rams are still susceptible to inside running attacks, and that got exploited again last week against the Green Bay Packers and RB Aaron Jones which they, thankfully, abandoned. Talent-wise, outside pass rush is probably the weakest area which motivated General Manager Les Snead to trade for Jacksonville Jaguars EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. this week. We’ll see what kind of immediate impact he has. Maybe surprisingly, coverage has also been an issue since CB Aqib Talib was placed on IR after injuring his ankle in Week 3. CB Marcus Peters’ aggression has been exploited frequently and CB Troy Hill is too volatile to be a reliable man cover week-to-week.

But overall, it’s still a good defense. DL Aaron Donald is ridiculously good and he’s joined by DL Ndamukong Suh and DL Michael Brockers up front. LB Cory Littleton is athletic enough to be a solid complementary piece to ILB Mark Barron. And the safety duo of S Lamarcus Joyner and S John Johnson III remains one of the NFL’s best.

Jared Goff was put under pressure against Green Bay and appeared to rush some of his throws. Has this been a consistent issue all season? How is the offensive line holding up?

Yeah, the first half against the Packers was the offense’s worst of the year. More than anything, they just looked disjointed. The timing was completely mismatched which threw Goff off of the rhythm of the offense and denied him the ability to wait for things to develop. The offensive line, which had been ranked the best in the NFL to that point, was confused by the different looks and blitz schemes and the inconsistent timing of those blitzes. And when Goff did have time, wide receivers weren’t getting open.

It was just a bit of a mess.

Thankfully, they got through it and looked a bit like themselves later on, but it’s hard not to think that was the anomaly given how they’ve played all year. So I’m fighting recency bias, but overall they’ve been great. Goff has played the best football of his professional career, albeit inconsistently. The line has had some sporadic issues which have plagued them within games. Through seven games prior to last week overall though, they were spectacular in the run and passing game.

So hopefully the first half last week was a bit of a perfect storm for Green Bay in terms of their gameplan, early execution and the discomfort it put the Rams’ offense under.

If you were the Saints, how would you game plan to attack the Los Angeles Rams defense?

Well, it’s tough. The first thing you have to do is account for [Aaron Donald]. He’s just supremely disruptive in the pass and the run. In terms of the run, you can draw him upfield, or you can assign extra blockers to him which teams are doing more for him than any other player in the NFL (and wisely so). Same in the pass, but instead of drawing him upfield and running past him, you can work your quarterback instead of climbing the pocket vertically.

Beyond that, the Rams look susceptible in run defense and to the deep ball. I’m not sure we force seven punts out of you guys like we did last year unless y’all struggle to run the ball again. Which would be a surprise in and of itself.

Who is one Rams player that Saints fans might not be familiar with that you expect to make an impact in this game?

A couple. On offense, RG Austin Blythe has been a huge surprise. With RG Jamon Brown suspended the first two games, Blythe filled in and looked superb. He hasn’t looked back since to the point that the Rams waived Brown this week to make room for Fowler.

On defense, I mentioned Littleton. He’s developing into a hell of a player both as a linebacker but also as a special teams threat on punt blocks. And Johnson has quietly become one of the best defenders in the NFL. A third-round rookie last year, he didn’t start until Week 5 last year. He’s been very, very good ever since.

And one random player to keep in mind: PR JoJo Natson Jr. A diminutive returner who played at Utah State and Akron and filtered through the UDFA muck in 2017 to land on the Rams’ 90-man roster this summer, Natson impressed enough to get a call to come in after Pro Bowl returner Pharoh Cooper went down with an ankle injury in Week 1. He’s very quick and very shifty and the Rams block very well on special teams under Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel.

What’s your prediction for the game? Final score?

So I went with you guys winning 34-30 in our staff picks this week. As the score indicates, I just think these are two very good teams and in the NFL you generally just throw good teams in a blender and see what comes out. For the most part, it’s entertaining and close and dramatic and the good stuff that makes us fans of good football teams.

And that’s kind of what I expect moreso than a specific score or picking a winner. A playoff preview of two good teams just like last year.

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A big thanks to Joseph for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure you check out his work and the rest of the good folks at Turf Show Times for tons of Rams content. You can follow Joseph on Twitter @3k_, Turf Show Times @TurfShowTimes, and of course you can always follow me @dunnellz.