The New Orleans Saints head on the road this week for the first of back to back games on the west coast. The first of which is against the Los Angeles Rams in a much-publicized rematch of the blatant NFC championship robbery that cost New Orleans a trip to Super Bowl LIII. The contest not only features two of the most productive offenses in the league, but two very well balanced teams expected to be in the heat of the battle for the championship. Each squad comes into the game at 1-0, with Los Angeles hanging on for a 30-27 victory on the road at Carolina and the Saints prevailing in a last second 30-28 thriller at home against Houston. The Rams averaged 421 yards and 32.9 points per game last season, both second in the league and just a shade better than the Saints average of 31.5/game. Los Angeles has one of the more imaginative attacks in the game, but oppose a New Orleans defense that thrives on pressuring offensive backfields. Today, we'll examine how the two squads match up against one another in this marquee showdown.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. RAMS PASS OFFENSE
The good news is that the New Orleans pass defense, which ranked 29th last year, sacked Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson six times, applied heavy pressure most of the game, and intercepted him once. The bad news is that the Saints still struggled with communication in the secondary that led to big plays, especially in pivotal moments such as allowing two deep passes in the final seconds that nearly cost them the game. Third year cornerback Marshon Lattimore did play well against Houston on the back end. Matched up against Texans All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins much of the game, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year battled fiercely and held his own. Hopkins would have 8 catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the game. According to Pro Football Focus though, Hopkins had 4 receptions for 51 yards and a score on seven targets against Lattimore. Other members of the New Orleans secondary, namely Eli Apple, P.J. Williams, and Marcus Williams need to be far more consistent in coverage. Marcus Williams had the team's interception Monday night on a beautiful athletic play showing good anticipation, but was also partially responsible for a few big plays due to poor recovery. P.J. Williams and Apple are often heavily targeted, and each need to make more plays to make teams think twice about testing them. Linebackers Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone skillfully mix blitzes with their coverage ability in both zone or man. Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata returns after a one game suspension, adding another pass rusher to a line that is deep and disruptive. End Cameron Jordan, who had a sack last week, is one of the NFL's most underrated defenders, and has had double digit sack totals in four of the last six seasons. Fellow end Trey Hendrickson followed up his tremendous preseason with 2 sacks against Houston, while P.J. Williams and safety Vonn Bell both applied good pressure at times with blitzes. Last year's number one pick Marcus Davenport came under some scrutiny for his play, but he actually got into the Texans backfield on several plays, just needs to do a better job of finishing. The Saints defensive tackles, despite the absence of Onyemata and the injured Sheldon Rankins, also got decent push up the middle on passing downs, but will need more consistent interior pressure in this one.
Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff, considered one of league's top young signal callers, completed 64.9% of his throws for 4,688 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his third season. There is some speculation that the first overall pick in the 2016 draft is in a slump though, especially after netting just 186 yards despite 23 completions last week against the Panthers. Goff has thrown for less than 225 yards in six of his last eight games, including playoffs, and has seemed skittish against pressure. He certainly has talented playmakers to distribute the ball to in coach Sean McVay's innovative system. Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Brandin Cooks make up one of the league's best trio of wideouts, and running back Todd Gurley is a good receiver out of the backfield. Kupp had 40 catches for 566 yards and 6 touchdowns in just seven games last year before a knee injury ended his season. Woods and Cooks, a former Saints star, each had over 1,200 yards and a combined 11 scores last season on 86 and 80 receptions respectively. All three, as well as underrated backup Josh Reynolds, are a bit undersized but excel at making plays in the open field after the catch. The tight ends aren't a huge part of the passing offense, but Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are both capable targets for their quarterback. Goff was sacked 33 times last season, but has recently come under fire for his performance when under pressure.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints secondary vs. Rams wideouts
The L.A. receivers are smaller than the average NFL prototype, but are tough and athletic. They thrive on crossing routes, so the New Orleans secondary must be disciplined in their coverage and pursuit. Lattimore and Apple have an advantage if they can be physical with the L.A. wideouts at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their timing. All eyes will be on the New Orleans safeties for containment as well, particularly in key moments. Goff has thrown six touchdown passes and averaged 347 yards in the last three meetings against the Saints, mostly targeting his talented wideouts.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. RAMS RUN OFFENSE
New Orleans had the league's second best run defense a year ago, but had some issues with containment last Monday against Houston. The Saints surrendered a surprising 180 yards on the ground to the Texans, as they showed poor gap responsiblity and containment on several plays. New Orleans played much better run defense in the second half though, much closer to what we're accustomed to seeing. Defensive tackles Malcom Brown, Taylor Stallworth, and Shy Tuttle got good penetration throughout the second half, often able to defuse plays quickly. Cam Jordan is one of the better edge run defenders, but both Davenport and Hendrickson need to be more consistent at not getting caught out of position on the other side. Linebackers Davis, Anzalone and A.J. Klein are outstanding at firing into the backfield to make plays and from sideline to sideline.
Todd Gurley is considered one of the top running backs in the NFL, but like Goff has recently been the subject of some scrutiny. In Gurley's case it has been his health, as a bothersome knee injury hindered his production down the stretch of last year and has raised questions about his longterm durability. He did have 97 yards on just 14 carries in the opener against Carolina, coming off of a 1,251 yard rushing season in 2018. His backup Malcolm Brown, picked up 53 yards last week and scored two touchdowns.
Matchup to Watch:
Saints LB's vs. Gurley
Saints running back Alvin Kamara accounted for 18 total touchdowns last season, only topped by the 21 from Todd Gurley, who totaled 1,831 yards from scrimmage. Davis and Anzalone are two of the few linebackers who can match Gurley's athleticism and versatility between the tackles, on the outside, and in the passing game. Although Gurley was limited to just five touches during the NFC championship game, the Saints have held him to an average of less than 100 yards from scrimmage in each of their previous three regular season meetings.
The Saints look to have the advantage up front to pressure Goff and make him hurry his throws. Expect New Orleans to mix in quite a few blitzes to try and force the struggling Rams signal caller into mistakes as well. Lattimore may not necessarily be locked on one receiver, as he was with Hopkins last week, but New Orleans would be wise to mix up their coverages to prevent the L.A. attack from getting into a rythm. The Saints have played better against Gurley than most teams, and we should see a better outing this week from the run defense in general. The same late game coverage breakdowns in last week's Houston game is also one of the things that cost the Saints in the playoffs against Los Angeles. The New Orleans secondary must still show that they can hold up against the passing attacks of their fellow top contenders for this defense to prove capable of winning a championship.
Which is the biggest match up when the New Orleans defense eyeballs the Rams offense?
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Saints defense line vs. Rams offensive line
Saints LB's vs. Todd Gurley
Saints secondary vs. Rams wideouts