The New Orleans Saints host the Los Angeles Rams in the first of the two conference championship games next Sunday afternoon. This showdown most definitely doesn't lack star power, and both teams come armed with high powered offenses. New Orleans ranked 3rd in points scored, averaging 31.5 per game, while their 379 yards/game ranked 8th in the league. They take on a Rams defense that ranked 19th in the NFL, surrendering 359 yards and 24 points per game. The game is a rematch of a week nine game played in New Orleans, won by the Saints in a 45-35 shootout. Los Angeles comes into the title game off a 30-22 divisional round defeat of the Dallas Cowboys, while New Orleans downed the Philadelphia Eagles 20-14 in their division round matchup. Today's piece breaks down how the Saints offense may fare against the Los Angeles defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. RAMS PASS DEFENSE
The Saints passing game didn't produce it's normal numbers under coach Sean Payton this season, but it was for the most part an extremely effective unit. New Orleans averaged 253 yards through the air per game during the regular season, good for 12th in the league. Now forty year old quarterback Drew Brees had as efficient a season as he's ever had, eclipsing his own NFL record by completing 74.4% of his passes. He threw for 3,992 yards, his lowest output as a Saint, but threw for 32 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions. Brees has always been effective at spreading the ball around, and is masterful at finding the open receiver, but he was fortunate to have one of the league's most dominant receivers this season in Michael Thomas. In just his third season, Thomas has rewritten the team's record book, setting several NFL records in the process. He led the league with 125 receptions, had his third consecutive 1,000 yard season (a team record 1,405), and scored nine touchdowns. Thomas had 12 receptions for 171 yards and a score in last week's playoff victory over Philadelphia, giving him 27 catches for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns in three postseason appearances.
The New Orleans pass production dipped a bit down the stretch, with Brees averaging 236 ypg over his final seven games, as opposed to 292 ypg with 18 scoring passes and 1 interception over the first eight contests. Other than Thomas, the only other receiver that had consistent production was running back Alvin Kamara, who had 81 receptions for 709 yards and 4 scores. Kamara is a threat from anywhere along the offensive formation, as he and Thomas proved to be a devastating combo against opposing defenses. Rookie wideouts Tre'quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood have both had standout moments this season, but have combined for just 41 catches and 636 yards, although they do have 7 touchdown receptions. Brees trusts his tight ends, Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill, but they have only 51 receptions for 585 yards and three scores between them. Ted Ginn Jr. missed eleven games this season with a knee injury, but returned for the playoff run and adds a deep threat element to the passing game.
The Saints suffered some injuries along their offensive line over the last half of the year, specifically on the left side, to tackle Terron Armstead and guard Andrus Peat. Brees was still sacked just 17 times for the year, although there were some protection breakdowns that forced him to rush his throws down the stretch.
The Rams finished 14th in the league against the pass, allowing around 236 yards per game, but surrendered 31 touchdown passes, good for just 25th in the league. Their success against the pass is predicated on getting heavy pressure on the quarterback from their All-Pro defensive tackles, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. The Rams had 41 sacks during the regular season, 20.5 from Donald and 4.5 from Suh. A midseason trade with Jacksonville brought them talented edge rusher Dante Fowler, who teams with Michael Brockers to give Los Angeles a good compliment to their inside rush. Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters are a pair of top-flight cornerbacks that go along with Nickell Roby-Coleman, giving the Rams a solid trio of corners, while Troy Hill and veteran Sam Shields add capable depth. Safeties LaMarcus Joyner and Johnson Johnson add a playmaking presence to their defense's back end, while Samson Ebukam and Cory Littleton have been big play linebackers.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints WR's vs. Rams CB's ~
The real showdown that most will be watching will be Michael Thomas vs. Marcus Peters. Thomas tormented Peters and the Ram secondary in week nine, catching 12 passes for a franchise record 211 yards and a 72-yd. touchdown late in the 4th quarter over Peters to clinch the Saints victory. After the score, Thomas reached under the goalpost and pulled out a cell phone, reminiscent of a similar 2003 celebration that involved Saints wideout Joe Horn. Peters did not react well to what he perceived as disrespectful behavior from Thomas or coach Sean Payton, and the three have engaged in a war of words since. While most will be watching the battle between these two, the New Orleans receiving corps as a whole must be able to get separation in a Rams secondary full of big names. Talib sat out the November 4th meeting with an injury, and some suspect that he may draw the assignment of covering Thomas more often. Ginn also missed the November contest between the two teams, so his abilities must be accounted for as well.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. RAMS RUN DEFENSE
The New Orleans running game ranked 6th in the NFL, averaging 127 yards per game and 4.3/carry. The Saints 26 rushing touchdowns were the highest in the league, and they were paced by a formidable duo at running back with Kamara and Mark Ingram. Kamara led the Saints in rushing, with 883 yards and a team record 14 touchdowns, while Ingram added 645 yards and six scores. The two averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and each has proven capable of picking up tough inside yardage as well as the speed to break the big plays. The team's offensive line simply beat up opponents throughout the 2018 season, establishing control of the line of scrimmage and allowing the Saints to have the league's most balanced attack. Peat, fellow guard Larry Warford, and center Max Unger have mauled opponents inside, opening up initial holes as well as cutback lanes for their talented runners. Tackles Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are among the best in the game at sealing the edge for backs to get outside, and get upfield quickly to break open big runs.
Los Angeles ranked 23rd against the run during the year, surrendering 122 ypg, and the 5.1 yards per carry they gave up ranked last in the NFL. Donald, who is also the Rams best run defender, is capable of getting quick penetration into the offensive backfield to short-circuit plays, but otherwise the L.A. defensive line has had trouble at times holding up against physical offensive lines. Linebackers Samson Ebukam, Cory Littleton, and Mark Barron are athletic, but a bit undersized. Safeties Joyner and Johnson are good in run support and terrific tacklers. Despite some struggles against the run during the year, Los Angeles held the physical rushing game of Dallas and Ezekiel Elliott to just 50 yards on the ground in last week's playoff win.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints offensive line vs. Rams defensive line ~
Kamara rushed for 82 yards and two touchdowns when the Saints defeated the Rams on November 4th, as New Orleans racked up 141 yards rushing. The Saints offensive line not only paved the way for a good rushing performance that day, but they held Donald and the Rams pass rush without a sack. The Saints line struggled quite a bit early in their playoff meeting with the Eagles last week, but fortified somewhat as the game went along. After a slow start, New Orleans ran for 96 yards on 19 carries in the second half. This offensive line will have their hands full with Donald, perhaps the best defensive player in the league, along with the rest of a powerful Los Angeles line. Their ability to establish a running game will help the Saints maintain a balanced offensive attack, and they will be challenged to maintain a secure passing pocket for Brees.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
New Orleans took a deep shot to Ginn on the first play of their divisional round game against Philadelphia last week. Even though Brees underthrew the ball and it was intercepted, the play outlined an aggressive offensive strategy that will likely be repeated in this game. Brees rebounded from an awful 1st quarter against the Eagles, going 26-32 for 271 yards and two touchdowns in the final three quarters. His offensive line also had early pass protection troubles against the Philadelphia rush, something that could be disastrous if that slow start is repeated against Los Angeles. The Saints shut down Donald and Suh up front in their previous meeting, holding them to a combined 3 tackles and very few pressures. Brees lit up the Rams for 346 yards and 4 touchdowns against the L.A. defense in the game, as the Saints rolled up 487 yards of total offense and 31 first downs.
Rams coordinator Wade Phillips is one of the most respected defensive minds in the game, as he and Payton will match wits throughout this one. Phillips must not only game plan to pressure Brees and cover Thomas, but must also devise a way to contain Kamara, who has tormented his defenders. In two meetings against Los Angeles, Kamara has averaged 8.9 yards per touch, totaled 304 yards (169 rushing, 135 receiving), and scored 5 touchdowns. Expect the Saints to use Kamara and Ingram both more heavily in the passing game, looking for one on one advantages against the Rams linebackers and to combat their pass rush up front. The battles in the secondary should be fierce, but there haven't been many defensive backs that have been able to contain Thomas, and we should expect some opportunities for Ginn down the field. The Los Angeles defense played well against a limited Cowboy offense last week, but New Orleans has the ability to stretch a defense both vertically and horizontally while pounding away with their running game. The Saints offensive line is anxious to bounce back from last week's poor start against Philadelphia, and a good performance from them could fuel their potent offense as they try to push their way to Super Bowl LIII.
Which match up is most vital for the Saints to have offensive success against the Rams?
This poll is closed
Peat/Unger/Warford vs. Donald/Suh
Armstead/Ramczyk vs. Fowler/Brockers
Michael Thomas/Ted Ginn vs. Marcus Peters/Aqib Talib
Kamara/Ingram vs. Ebukam/Littleton/Barron
Drew Brees vs. Lamarcus Joyner/John Johnson
Sean Payton vs. Wade Phillips