|Did you hear? The Saints won!|
On Sunday, the New Orleans Saints started off their game against the Philadelphia Eagles just about as badly as you could imagine. On the Saints first play from scrimmage, Eagles defensive back Cre’Von LeBlanc intercepted a Drew Brees pass meant for Ted Ginn Jr. Philadelphia then scored a touchdown to go up 7-0. After New Orleans went three-and-out on their next drive, the Eagles marched down the field for another touchdown with a 10 play, 75-yard drive that ate up over five minutes of clock. Philadelphia’s win probability had swung from 26.9% to 70.8% in less than 11 minutes of game time.
Ultimately, though the Saints climbed their way back into the game thanks to some patented aggressiveness by Brees and head coach Sean Payton. New Orleans scored 10 points before the half, but it was in the third quarter that the Saints took the lead for good. Brees led the New Orleans offense on a drive that took nearly eleven and a half minutes, covering 92 yards, and culminating in a Michael Thomas touchdown. New Orleans offense converted 2nd and 20 and 3rd and 16 into first downs. They even overcame 3 penalties on the offense.
All told, Brees went 28-38 for 301 yards and two TDs. Running back Alvin Kamara had 16 carries for 71 yards and wide receiver Michael Thomas dominated the Eagles catching 12 passes for 171 yards and the go-ahead touchdown. For as poorly as the Saints played in the opening quarter, they played fantastic from the second quarter on and sent the Philadelphia packing.
Next week, however, against the Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans cannot afford to go down 14-0 again. This time they might not get back up.
Taking a broad look at both teams, the Saints and Rams are closely matched. Over the course of the entire season, LA narrowly edged out the Saints in Total DVOA, but at the end of the year, New Orleans led in weighted DVOA (weighted DVOA discounts earlier season games in favor or later season ones. Total DVOA treats all games equally).
SAINTS OFFENSE vs. RAMS DEFENSE
New Orleans Offense
Los Angeles Defense
When the Saints have the ball, we know what the game plan is. Drew Brees makes a lot of short and intermediate passes to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Mark Ingram takes the bulk of the handoffs while Kamara gets his touches as well. Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have a package of plays for QB/TE/RB/whatever other position you’d like him to play Taysom Hill. The Saints offensive line is once again excellent at pass protection—3rd in adjusted sack rate—and at blocking for the run game—2nd in adjusted line yards.
The Rams defense has shown few signs of being able to slow down the Saints stars. In the last matchup with the Rams in November, Kamara and Ingram ran for 115 yards on 28 carries and Michael Thomas had 12 receptions for 211 yards. They don’t stop the run very well. They’re 19th in adjusted sack rate so they don’t get a lot of pressure and they’re 28th in DVOA against #1 wide receivers, so look for Michael Thomas to have another big game. While it would be foolish to underestimate legendary Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, Los Angeles doesn’t have a dominant defense.
SAINTS DEFESE vs. RAMS OFFENSE
New Orleans Defense
Los Angeles Offense
This is more interesting of part of the game. The Rams run the overwhelming majority of their plays out of 11 personnel—meaning that they have 1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers on the field. Their offense is so successful because of the way that Los Angeles head coach Sean McVay deploys this grouping in different ways. He constantly changes wide receiver routes and uses running back Todd Gurley as a receiver and runner—very much like the way the Saints use Alvin Kamara. Wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are a formidable 1-2 combo. Cooks, as he was back in his Saints days, is a dangerous deep threat and Woods works the middle of the field and the sidelines very effectively.
The question for the New Orleans defense will be if they can effectively stop Gurley on the ground and force the Rams to be one-dimensional on offense. But even when the Rams rely solely on their passing game, they’re tough to stop. In the teams’ November matchup, Gurley has 68 yards on 13 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Quarterback Jared Goff went 28-40 for 391 yards and 3 TDs. In total, the Rams scored 35 points.
The Rams and Saints are similarly matched on special teams. Both teams feature good punters—Johnny Hekker and Thomas Morstead. Despite his miss from 52 yards on Sunday, Wil Lutz has been one of the best kickers in the NFL this season. Los Angeles kicker Greg Zuerlein missed a month or so early in the season, but remains one of the league’s most accurate kickers.
Sean Payton is Sean Payton. He’s aggressive on 4th down. He and Brees have a rapport built over thousands of plays that is nearly unmatched in the NFL. There’s not much else to say here. Second year Rams head coach Sean McVay is the league’s rising star. The biggest requirement for a new head coach this year seemed to be knowing or working for McVay. Last season, he revitalized Goff’s career and turned Los Angeles from an also-ran into a championship contender. McVay might very well be the next Sean Payton in terms of offensive creativity and play-calling.
Two offensive gurus, a Hall of Fame QB looking for his second ring, and a Superdome crowd that will be absolutely insane. The game may come down to whichever team has the ball last. And if that’s the case, I know where I’m putting my money. Saints 41 Rams 38