The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams face off this afternoon in the Mercedes Benz Superdome for the right to be the NFC representative in Super Bowl LIII. The Saints have one of the league's most balanced offense, but a productive offense is nothing new for this franchise since the hiring of coach Sean Payton in 2006. What hasn't been as consistent with the Saints during the Payton era has been great defense. His teams in 2006, '09, '10, '13, and last year were all very good on the defensive end, and not coincidentally those seasons resulted in a postseason berth. The 2018-19 squad is arguably the most complete defensive team that the Saints have had since Payton's arrival. New Orleans ranked 14th in total defense, allowing 349 yards and 22.1 points per game. This defense became a highly disruptive unit over the last half of the season though, and held 11 opponents to 20 points or less. The Saints defense has often taken control of games as they've progressed, and have given up just 3 4th quarter points over the last six games. That second half dominance was on display during the Saints divisional round win over the Philadelphia Eagles last week. After the Eagles gained 151 yards and scored two touchdowns on their opening two drives, New Orleans shut them out and held them to just 99 yards for the rest of the game.
They now take on a Los Angeles Rams offense that ranked 2nd in the NFL in both points (32.9/game), and total yardage (421/game). The Rams have scored at least 30 points in twelve games this season, and can beat opponents in a number of ways. They demonstrated exactly that during their 30-22 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys during the division round last week. This NFC title game is a rematch of a November 4th contest between Los Angeles and New Orleans in the Superdome. Despite gaining 483 yards of offense, the Rams lost to the Saints that afternoon in a 45-35 shootout. Let's have a look at how the New Orleans defense may fare in Round Two of this heavyweight battle between the NFC's two best teams.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. RAMS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints ranked just 29th against the pass during the regular season, surrendering 269 yards per game. The team had major issues in their defensive backfield over the first month of the season, but an October trade for cornerback Eli Apple gave them a solid cover duo, and the secondary has played solid football since. Apple and Marshon Lattimore have been able to take on the opponent's top wideouts and limit their production enough for the Saints to have success. Fellow cornerback P.J. Williams has played fairly well in predominantly slot coverage since the Apple trade, and safety Vonn Bell has given the defense solid coverage from the slot as well. The team has 12 interceptions on the year, led by two each from Apple, Lattimore, Chris Banjo, and Marcus Williams, but swarm to the ball well in the open field with a penchant for forcing fumbles. The Saints linebackers have been responsible for a number of turnovers in the open field as well, and the unit has been excellent in pass defense at times. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein are precise in their zone drops, and have the athleticism to cover backs or tight ends in man coverage. All three 'backers are outstanding blitzers as well, and have 9 sacks between them, but the majority of the Saints pressure is generated from a deep and talented defensive line. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has a team-leading 12 of the team's 49 sacks, and provides a constant disruption from the edge. Rookie first rounder Marcus Davenport and Alex Okafor have combined for 8.5 sacks, and have produced decent pressure from the other edge to compliment Jordan. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins suffered an Achilles injury during the Saints divisional round victory over Philadelphia a week ago, a devastating loss to the team's interior pressure. Tackle David Onyemata, who had three sacks against Dallas and 4.5 on the year, must step up to provide inside pressure in the absence of Rankins to disrupt a Los Angeles passing game that has struggled at times against physical pass rushes.
The Rams averaged 282 yards passing during the regular season, good for 5th in the league. Quarterback Jared Goff had eight 300-yd. passing games this year, on his way to 4,688 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Goff has two 1,000 yard wideouts in Robert Woods and former Saint Brandin Cooks. Woods finished with 86 receptions for 1,219 yards with 6 touchdowns, while Cooks added 80 catches for 1,204 yards and 5 scores. The Los Angeles attack lost a major threat when Cooper Kupp was placed on injured reserve at midseason with a knee injury. Josh Reynolds has stepped into the third receiver spot in Kupp's absence with less production (29 receptions, 402 yards), but does have five touchdowns. Goff also used his tight ends more extensively with Kupp out as well, using them well to work the middle of the field. Gerald Everett (33 catches, 320 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Tyler Higbee (24-292, 2) are big-bodied targets with decent athleticism in the open field. Running back Todd Gurley is a very effective checkdown weapon out of the backfield, catching 59 passes for 580 yards and four scores. Goff has been sacked 33 times this year, and the Los Angeles offensive line has struggled against physical defense, although they held a very good Dallas defense sackless last week.
~Matchup to Watch: Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple vs. Robert Woods/Brandin Cooks ~
The Rams use their top two wideouts in a variety of ways, and they're most effective on crossing routes and bubble screens to utilize their open field skills. Cooks, Woods, and Kupp combined for 16 receptions, 274 yards, and 2 touchdowns against New Orleans in November. Even without Kupp, this duo presents a formidable challenge to any defense, but neither Woods or Cooks do well against physical and athletic defensive backs. Lattimore and Apple both have the athletic ability to run with the Rams receivers, but will need to be physical at the line of scrimmage to prevent a free release. The Saints secondary rebounded from a shaky start against Philadelphia last week, holding Eagles quarterback Nick Foles to just 10 completions in 22 attempts for only 74 yards in the game's final three quarters.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. RAMS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans had the NFL's 2nd ranked run defense this season, allowing just 80 yards per game and only 3.6 yards per carry. Only four opponents ran for over 100 yards as a team against the Saints, who didn't allow a single back to rush for even 80 yards against them. The loss of Rankins could affect the team's run defense, but tackles Taylor Stallworth and Tyeler Davison have provided a stout interior wall against the rush all season long. Cam Jordan is perhaps the league's best edge run defender, and both Okafor and Davenport hold up well along the edge. The ability of the defensive line to win the battles up front have allowed Saints linebackers Davis, Klein, and Anzalone to fire through gaps and make plays in the offensive backfield. New Orleans held the Eagles to just 49 yards on the ground last week, and contained a powerful Los Angeles running game during their week nine meeting. Gurley had just 68 yards against New Orleans in that game, one of a number of top backs that the Saints have shut down this season.
The Rams running attack was 3rd in the NFL during the regular season, averaging 139 yards per game. Gurley was the league's 3rd leading rusher, finishing with 1,251 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He ran for a league high 17 rushing touchdowns, and the 23 rushing scores that Los Angeles had as a team was second only to the Saints. Gurley was slowed by a knee injury over the final month of the season, but ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in the playoff victory over the Cowboys last week. The Rams signed veteran C.J. Anderson late in the year, who rushed for over 100 yards in each of the final two regular season games, then ran for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns against Dallas. Gurley is one of the most explosive backs in the league, and Anderson provides a bruising between the tackles compliment.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive line vs. Rams offensive line ~
The Rams offensive line brutalized Dallas, paving the way for 273 rushing yards through the Cowboys defense. The Saints must prevent a repeat a performance like that if they want to continue their season, and must do it without Rankins in the middle. New Orleans must also generate pressure on Goff, who was not sacked when the teams met in November, forcing him to get rid of the ball before the Rams lethal crossing patterns can develop down the field.
Rams coach Sean McVay comes up with some of the most imaginative game plans in the league. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen must match wits with McVay, and come up with a plan to contain the high-powered Los Angeles offense. The New Orleans defensive backs will likely mix their coverage schemes between an aggressive, physical approach at the line of scrimmage and a softer coverage intent on swarming to the ball after a short gain. Due to the absence of Rankins, Cam Jordan may be moved around in hopes of generating heavy pressure on Goff, and keep the Rams offensive line off balance. The New Orleans defense has done an outstanding job of in-game adjustments all season, and has been an underrated big play unit largely responsible for the team being on the brink of a Super Bowl.
New Orleans has an 8-5 postseason record since the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, and have a 6-0 home playoff record. The Saints offense will be challenged to control Rams defensive linemen Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Dante Fowler up front, but will look to establish balance with a formidable offensive line and star weapons Brees, receiver Michael Thomas, along with running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The match up between Thomas and Ram cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib is worthy of pay-per-view, and the Saints look to have a significant mismatch with both Thomas and Kamara against the Los Angeles defense.
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTION:
What is the most important match up for the Saints defense against the Los Angeles offense?
This poll is closed
Saints DT's vs. Rams interior line
Jordan/Davenport/Okafor vs. Rams OT's
Davis/Anzalone/Klein vs. Gurley/Anderson
Lattimore/Apple/Williams vs. Woods/Cooks/Reynolds
Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams vs. Goff
Dennis Allen vs. Sean McVay