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 before the NFC Championship Game, a rematch from Week 9 in the Dome between the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints.
We know Aqib Talib is back now. What do you expect Talib to bring to the Rams secondary this go-round in New Orleans?
Much needed man coverage skills. Obviously, the caliber of opponent is worth considering, but the Rams have just been much, much better defensively this year with Talib on the field than during the stretch from Weeks 4 to 13 when he had to rehab his surgically repaired ankle. He’s simply the best man corner we have which, of course, makes Marcus Peters better on the other side.
One thing of note I feel is worth pointing out is that Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips doesn’t generally assign cornerbacks to specific wideouts. Instead, they have assignments for their side of the field regardless of who lines up there. So I wouldn’t assume that Talib is going to “cover” Michael Thomas, at least not initially. It will depend more on how you guys line up and who goes where. Last week, the Dallas Cowboys picked up on a man blitz scheme while bringing their best wide receiver, Amari Cooper, inside to draw a safety man alignment. Cooper, not surprisingly, beat S Lamarcus Joyner for a relatively easy touchdown. That being said, Phillips has been willing to adjust this later on in games depending on performance. So if you guys use Thomas heavily on the inside, I’d expect an eventual adjustment. Just in terms of what to look for early on though, the Rams will remain in their traditional defensive base set with Peters and Talib each having their own sideline to work.
Are there any other roster changes (or changes in allocation of snaps) from this game from the last time these two teams met in the regular season?
On offense, the Rams are now without WR Cooper Kupp. The most reliable go-to for QB Jared Goff, Kupp tore his ACL against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10, just one week after our initial meeting. The offense has looked off without him, though I’d argue that was first and foremost a factor of the offensive line having a dip in performance after our Week 12 bye, but it can’t be argued that the Rams don’t miss Kupp. So in his absence, the Rams brought WR Josh Reynolds into more looks while providing more targets to the tight ends in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett.
I would note though that Dante Fowler’s first game for the Rams was our Week 9 shootout. I’m not sure that he’s really needed much integration given his role, but it’s at least something to bear in mind.
Editor note: the Rams also signed CJ Anderson on December 18, 2019. Anderson, filling in for and complimenting Todd Gurley, has performed well in his brief stint with the Rams thus far, rushing for over 100 yards in his three games, totaling 422 yards and 4 touchdowns.
If you were game planning to stop NFL-wunderkid Sean McVay and the Rams offense, what would you do? How would you attack the Rams defense?
On defense, you have to beat the Rams at the point of attack. I’d argue the Rams’ offensive line single-handedly won the game last week against the Cowboys. When the Rams have struggled on offense, it’s been largely because of the offensive line especially in pass protection. What McVay is particularly good at on offense is just spacing. His offense uses a variety of weapons at various levels of depth and on various timing patterns. It’s not like we have a guy that, let’s just be completely hypothetical, going to get 12 receptions on 16 targets for 171 receiving yards while no other target gets half as many looks. The Rams’ passing offense is much more balanced. So you can’t just blanket one guy. You can’t just expect a talent disparity that favors one matchup to cancel out the offense. That’s not how the Rams’ passing game works. So in order to really limit the effectiveness of the entirety of the system, you have to win at the line to deny the timing of the offense and disrupt Goff.
But when you have the ball, it really comes down to establishing the run. The Rams’ run defense has had trouble all year. It was easily the most surprising aspect of the game against the Cowboys given their offensive line talent level and the sheer output from RB Ezekiel Elliott. Not surprisingly when we played you guys back in Week 9, six of your first seven plays with the ball were rushes. Part of that was situational (3rd & 2 followed by 4th & 1), but it’s still the smart play.
But it sets up the question of how much of an anomaly the Rams’ performance was last week. Even with the injury to Andrus Peat, I’d expect you guys to come out and really try to establish the run in the first quarter.
Who is one lesser-known player on both sides of the ball you expect to make a big impact in the game for the Rams?
On offense, I’d keep an eye on RG Austin Blythe. He’s been the find of the year for the Rams. We picked him up last year as a second-year UDFA that settled in as a backup on the line. When RG Jamon Brown was hit with a two-game suspension for weed, Blythe was tabbed as the fill-in. He performed spectacularly well and hasn’t looked back. The line as a whole was fantastic last week against the Cowboys, but Blythe remains the man under the radar for opponents.
On defense, it’d be ILB Cory Littleton. He’s a special teams ace re-molded into a linebacker. He’s fantastically athletic and has a knack for getting to space quickly, but just isn’t a great linebacker on the merits. You can certainly bust him up with a physical attack, but he’s also able to get washed out by lesser blockers like tight ends or running backs. Where he can have an effect is lateral defense. So if you guys are committed to stretching things outside with Alvin Kamara, Littleton will be more central to our defense than ILB Mark Barron.
What’s your prediction for the game? Final score?
In our staff picks, I went Rams 37-31, but predicting the score is always so tongue-in-cheek. I think what’s pertinent here is what style of game we get. I’d guess we’re all expecting a shootout. With the way Week 9 went and the strengths of our offenses, it’s just hard not to lean that way.
So I’ll go a bit off-script with the prediction. I think what we’re going to get is a second-half adjustment shootout. I don’t think we’re going to get either team close to what you guys had going on in the first half when we last met with five touchdowns on six possessions. I do think though there’s a possibility of that in the second half. For both teams. Who wins? The team that figures out the key offensive adjustments in the last few possessions. By mid-3rd quarter, we’ll know what’s working and what’s not both through the course of the game but also based on what’s happened since halftime. So I think that riding out whatever’s working at that point and continuing to support that is going to decide the game. Will it be one of our rushing attacks? The passing game? A key defensive contributor like Aaron Donald or Aqib Talib or Marcus Lattimore or Cameron Jordan? We’re talking about the NFC Championship. Even if it’s a nail-biter, we’ll know that’s where we’re headed once we’re into the thick of the third quarter. So I think the winner gets determined thereafter with whoever comes up with the stronger late calls and the sufficient execution. I’ll stick with that final score (and the same level of tongue-in-cheekiness), but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we’re looking at a 31-30 game with the Rams having the ball late and the final score of the game gets determined by the literal final score.
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.