After destroying the rival Carolina Panthers 31-13 in what was dubbed the biggest game of the season, the 10-3 New Orleans Saints now face a test from the scrappy 5-8 St. Louis Rams. On paper, this looks like it should be a squash in favor of the Saints.
But as this season has revealed, you never know which Saints team will show up on the road.
The Rams currently have the 27th-ranked offense, as well as the 19th-ranked defense, but they have explosive personnel that could end up giving the Saints fits. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher (second year with the team) is in the midst of implementing a physical brand of football.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has installed a modern-day version of the "Air Coryell" attack, but he generally lacks the talent to see this aggressive approach to fruition.
The season-ending injury to franchise quarterback Sam Bradford derailed a promising season and left the less talented Kellen Clemens to run the precision-based offense. Defensively, Fisher's unit is among the most talented as far as the front seven...but not so much in the secondary. The defense is similar to the Panthers' D in that way.
But the Saints aren't in the comfortable confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They could have a major letdown with this game being sandwiched in between contests with Carolina.
Breakdown of Key Personnel
Kellen Clemens has been a backup for his entire career—and rightfully so. Despite being a second-round pick (49th overall), Clemens has very little talent to fall back on. He doesn't have a strong arm, he can be erratic with his accuracy, and he isn't overly athletic.
But he's familiar with the offense; he spent much of his career with the New York Jets, where Schottenheimer was his coordinator. He has a ton of moxie and will not be intimidated by the situation. For the season, he has thrown for 1,200 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions.
But in just seven games, he's been sacked 18 times. Expect Saints ends Cameron Jordan (11 sacks) and Junior Galette (9 sacks) to have a repeat of last week's performance.
The offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL in pass protection, but the Rams have linemen who will maul you when run blocking. Guard Harvey Dahl, a former Atlanta Falcon, may be the toughest lineman in the league. Tackles Jake Long and Rodger Saffold are not far behind him.
Long is one of the premier talents at his position, but he hasn't made the type of impact he has in previous years.
The Saints' best bet would be to stop the run and force the Rams to pass. If the Saints can avoid starting slowly, as they are prone to doing on the road, the Rams don't have the talent to execute a pass-centric attack.
But the battle between Dahl and Saints' interior lineman Akiem Hicks will be one to watch. Both have a nasty temperament; both are fierce competitors.
The Rams don't have a true No. 1 receiver on their roster, but they might have two of the top five explosive talents at the position.
Chris Givens and Tavon Austin are both a threat to score anytime they touch the ball. Givens has 11 receptions of 20-plus yards, while Austin has generated multiple touchdowns of 50-plus yards.
Austin operates out of the slot, where he will eventually run into Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro in what should be an exciting matchup of talented rookies. This same matchup played out on the collegiate level just last season.
On this particular play, Vaccaro showed the type of range he possesses by running down the quick Austin on a reverse. Due to Austin's extensive background as a running back, the Rams try to get the ball in his hands by any means necessary.
Vaccaro's ability to read and react has followed him into the NFL, where he has 71 tackles to his credit.
Austin will be used in the backfield, out wide and in his normal slot position; he will undoubtedly have the eye of Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Vaccaro will be a physical matchup for the diminutive Austin (5'8", 176 lbs), but if the Rams are able to isolate Austin in space, it may be curtains for the Saints. But if Vaccaro gives him the Ted Ginn treatment (pictured in the GIF below), the match will be over before it starts.
Tight end Jared Cook is pretty much a receiver as well. He may be the fastest at his position and will be a nightmare for Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. If the Saints decide to let linebacker Curtis Lofton cover Cook, he will be cooked. Zing!
Running back Zac Stacy has had an excellent rookie year. He runs with great body lean and will bring the thunder upon impact. Watching Stacy and Lofton collide in the hole will be something to watch. Stacy is also very good in the screen game due to his vision and agility.
Fellow back Benny Cunningham is an excellent change-of-pace back. He's extremely quick with uncanny agility of his own.
The Rams will attempt to take advantage of the Saints' aggressive defensive front with screens and draws. Lofton and Co. can't afford to miss tackles—as they rarely do.
This may be a game where the Saints should go to an odd-front alignment to really key in on the run. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley could be really effective in this tilt two-gapping and holding up the point of attack.
This is by far the best unit on the Rams.
Defensive ends Robert Quinn (13 sacks) and Chris Long (6.5 sacks) anchor an extremely stout line. Quinn is as good as any end in the league and deserves more recognition. He's a high-motor, quick-twitch athlete who has a vast array of moves. Long is a great athlete who plays with great leverage.
When you factor in another budding star in defensive tackle Michael Brockers (5.5 sacks), you have a unit capable of taking over games by harassing the QB at an extremely proficient clip. The Rams sometimes work out of the Wide 9 alignment, which leaves plenty of room for draw plays.
Room that Saints head coach Sean Payton won't take advantage of.
Look at the distance of the splits in the Wide 9. If New Orleans would dig into the playbook to take advantage of the space, the run game could make victory easily attainable. The Saints should provide a heavy dose of delays, draws and inside screens.
The Wide 9 isolates the tackles in space and makes it hard for them to receive help. Tackles Charles Brown and Zach Strief will struggle with this alignment, but running the football could alleviate those concerns.
The Rams have sideline-to-sideline linebackers who bring serious impact when they tackle. James Laurinaitis and rookie Alec Ogletree are exact clones of Lofton and fellow Saints backer David Hawthorne.
But with that being said, the Saints will undoubtedly test both in pass coverage.
The Saints will notice a familiar face when the Rams line up in their base 4-3 package. Former Saint Jo-Lonn Dunbar will be looking to inflict pain on a nonexistent Saints' run game (kidding...sort of). Dunbar is an excellent run-and-chase linebacker who would look great back in a Saints uniform.
The secondary is in trouble in this one. The Rams simply don't have enough talent to compete with the Saints' high-powered passing outfit. Corner Janoris Jenkins has a ton of talent, but his incessant gambling gets him toasted like Subway sandwiches on a weekly basis.
Fellow corner Trumaine Johnson has shown flashes of being a good player, but he's raw in his technique and will be exposed as well. Rookie safety T.J. McDonald will eventually be a really good player. He's a ferocious hitter who will separate your soul from your carcass. But he is a liability in coverage and will be exposed as such.
Overall, this unit has to get help from the rush. If the Saints' offensive line holds up in pass protection, it will be a long night for the upstart Rams.
But the Saints can't afford to take any game lightly as there's still a lot of football to play.
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