The New Orleans Saints vs. the Los Angeles Rams. A week 2 rematch of last season's NFC championship game that every fan of both teams has had circled on their calendar since the NFL schedule was released. New Orleans and Los Angeles each have among the league's best talent on both sides of the ball, and are among the teams expected to battle for NFC supremacy again. As most know, these two last met in the conference title game, when buffoonery by the officials overshadowed a good game between two great teams. This emotional rematch might again be a preview of who emerges from the pack in the NFC. Let's have a look at how the Saints offense stacks up with the opportunistic Rams defense.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE vs. RAMS PASS DEFENSE
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 370 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Saints to an electrifying comeback win over the Texans Monday night. The 19-yr. veteran showed that he still possesses the arm strength to stretch a defense, along with his legendary accuracy from sideline to sideline. His top receiver is fourth year wideout Michael Thomas, who followed up his career best 2018 (125 catches for 1,405 yards) with a 10-catch outing for 123 yards against Houston. Ted Ginn Jr. remains the Saints best down field threat, and had 7 catches for 101 yards Monday night. Offseason addition Jared Cook (2 catches, 37-yds.) showed he will be a force as well, while second year receiver Tre'quan Smith added a touchdown reception. Alvin Kamara is arguably the league's most dangerous running back in the passing game, as he added 7 receptions for 72 yards against the Texans, with a couple more near gamebreakers. The Saints protect their quarterback as well as any offensive line in the NFL. Offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk held Houston All-Pro end J.J. Watt to zero tackles, sacks, or quarterback hits on Monday night, and he and fellow bookend Terron Armstead are as good as they come. The elite New Orleans line will be tested by another All-Pro defensive lineman this week.
The Rams boast perhaps the league's most disruptive defender in Aaron Donald. The sixth year tackle has recorded 59.5 career sacks and 13 forced fumbles, including 20.5 qb takedowns last season while leading the NFL in tackles for loss. He is flanked by talented edge rusher Dante Fowler (2 sacks last week against the Panthers) and versatile lineman Michael Brockers up front, while Morgan Fox adds capable depth. Samson Ebukam and veteran Clay Matthews can also apply good pressure on the passer, often creating big play opportunities for the Rams secondary. Los Angeles gave up 236 yards per game last season through the air, 14th in the league, but their 31 touchdown passes ranked only 25th. They tightened up a bit in last week's win over the Carolina Panthers, allowing Cam Newton to throw for 239 yards but not giving up a touchdown pass. L.A. forced 30 turnovers in 2018, third best in the league, which included 18 interceptions. Strong safety John Johnson led them with 4 picks a year ago, and added an interception in overtime of the conference title game against New Orleans. The Rams have playmakers at cornerback with Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Nickell Roby-Coleman, who of course was the perpetrator of the blatantly scandalous "no call" pass interference in the championship game. Free safety Eric Weddle, a key offseason addition, has been limited in practice due to a concussion, but the veteran is expected to play this Sunday. L.A. linebacker Cory Littleton, the Rams leading tackler a year ago, had 4 sacks and three interceptions last season and added an interception, forced fumble, and fumble recovery against Carolina. He is an underrated playmaker for this Ram defense, which seems otherwise underwhelming in their linebacking corps.
Matchup to Watch:
Michael Thomas vs. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib
Thomas scorched the L.A. secondary for 12 receptions and a franchise record 211 yards with a touchdown last November, making Marcus Peters his own personal torcher victim. During the NFC championship game rematch however, the combination of Peters and Talib (who missed the regular season game) bottled up Thomas for only 4 catches and 36 yards. Thomas, Talib, and Peters are all physical players, and adding to the entertainment value is that each enjoy jawing on the field as well. The Saints other receiving targets like Tre'Quan Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., and particularly Jared Cook will be looked at to make plays, but the success of the New Orleans passing game revolves around the productivity of Thomas.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE vs. RAMS RUN DEFENSE
New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara is an all-purpose nightmare for opposing defenses. Kamara had 169 total yards last week against Houston (97 rushing, 72 receiving), and has put to rest any doubts about his ability to be an every down back. Latavius Murray takes on the duties of the number two back that previously belonged to Mark Ingram for a running attack that ranked 7th in the league last season and was tops in rushing touchdowns. Murray had a beautiful 30-yd. scoring run against the Texans where he showed outstanding burst, but only had five carries for 13 yards the rest of the game. New Orleans took control of the game against Houston on Monday night by staying patient with their running game and establishing balance in the second half.
Los Angeles ranked 23rd against the run in 2018, giving up an average of 122 yards per game, and have not fapp against physical offensive lines. The Rams were gashed last Sunday by Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who had two touchdowns on 128 yards rushing and added 81 yards on 10 receptions. That doesn't bode well in their match up with Kamara, who has averaged 142 all-purpose yards and scored 5 touchdowns in three meetings against L.A., including 184 yards on the ground.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints offensive line vs. Rams defensive line
This is certainly a key showdown to determine the success of the New Orleans passing game as well, given the pass rushing talents of Donald and Fowler. The Rams have struggled versus physical offensive lines however, That includes against the Saints, who picked up 141 yards on 34 rushes in their regular season win over L.A. last year. It was a different story in the playoff game between these two, as the Saints were able to rush for just 48 yards on 21 attempts. The New Orleans offensive line was heavily affected by injury that game, and down the stretch. The ability of guards Larry Warford, Andrus Peat, and center Erik McCoy to contain Donald is not only paramount to success in the running game, but giving Brees a clean pocket from which to work with. Ramczyk and Armstead should be able to set the edge well in the running game, but will be challenged by Fowler and Brockers off the edge.
As we've seen in each of the last three matchups with the Rams, it is especially vital for New Orleans to establish the run and win the line of scrimmage. Drew Brees has averaged 269 yards in ten career games against the Rams with 20 touchdown passes, but has also thrown 12 interceptions. The incompetent (or worse) officiating crew may have lost the NFC championship game for New Orleans, but their play on the offensive side of the ball in that game put them in a bad situation. The Saints squandered a few red zone opportunities early, which allowed Los Angeles to stay in the game. New Orleans will look to reverse their fortunes from that game by trying to establish control of the line of scrimmage early and staying patient with the run. Success doing that will help control the pass rush on Brees, and we should expect imaginative play calling from Sean Payton in red zone situations. The Saints built their offensive success in 2018 by being bullies at the line of scrimmage, and will need to beat up the athletic Rams up front to repeat the performance they had in the regular season showdown.