The question coming into this game was by how many points the New Orleans Saints would win. With the St Louis Rams off to an 0-6 start and the Saints coming off of a 55 points victory, surely this was a mismatch of epic proportions?
But that old adage of “any given Sunday” reared its head, as the Rams were able to exploit crucial weaknesses in the Saints’ offense and defense to pull off a shocking upset. If anything the score line was flattering to New Orleans who, but for a defensive touchdown and garbage time score that kept Drew Brees’ passing touchdown streak alive, weren’t at the races for large portions of this game.
This is just one game but the flaws the Rams brutally exposed at offensive tackle and in run defense raise alarming concerns for the prospects of the Saints in a competitive NFC South. It wasn’t just the Saints beating themselves though, with the Rams putting in the kind of performance that had most installing them pre season favorites for the NFC West. Let’s examine some of the critical encounters in this one.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
Vulnerability at middle linebacker
At some point a consistent vulnerability, such as that which the Saints have at middle linebacker with Jonathan Vilma (-3.7 run defense), has to be exposed. This Sunday was that day. This marked the ninth straight game in which Vilma has graded negatively as a run defender and though he managed not to miss a tackle for the third straight week he is a clear Achilles heel for this defense. The improved play of the likes of Sedrick Ellis has masked his poor form so far this season, but with the Saints’ defensive line failing to make a consistent impact in run defense Vilma’s poor angles and inability to shed blocks was brought in to sharp focus. Vilma’s touchdown may be his headline play from this game but dig a little deeper and you find a very poor performance. Vilma was neutralized effectively four times at the second level, with no play exhibiting his struggles in diagnosing plays better than at 3:59 of Q1 when he took off after a fullback in the right flat on a pass route rather than staying home and defending a run that was cut into the area he vacated in the defense. Poor show.
Return to NFC West brings a return to form
When the New Orleans Saints signed Aubrayo Franklin (+2.4) they thought they’d be getting the stout run defender who became one of the premier nose tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons in San Francisco. Up to this week his returns on their investment had been somewhat inconsistent and he has been overshadowed by Shaun Rogers and Sedrick Ellis. This week, against a familiar NFC West opponent, he came to the fore and showed the form the Saints expect from him registering two defensive stops in 14 snaps in run defense. Only Franklin’s limited snaps prevented him having more of an impact on the Rams’ running game.
Run blocking worries
Two seasons ago the Saints’ had one of the best run blocking lines in the NFL. Last season things started to fall away into inconsistency, and that steady decline continued this season and into this week 8 loss to the Rams. Four of the Saints’ starters graded negatively with their run blocking this week and of particular concern must be the performance of Carl Nicks (-3.1 run blocking this week). When the Saints were at their best they thrived on balance in their offense with the running game just as dangerous as the passing game. If they are to return to their best the Saints’ offensive line must return to form to allow the Saints to run the ball more than the 20 carries they managed this week.
St. Louis – Three Performances of Note
Chris Long’s Halloween House of Horrors
Tis the season for frights with Chris Long (+8.2 pass rush) getting right into the spirit of Halloween, ensuring that the New Orleans’ Saints right tackle pairing of Pat McQuistan and Charles Brown will be returning to the Bayou with nightmares aplenty. Long registered two sacks and four pressures against Brown to go with a further sack and three pressures against his replacement McQuistan, with neither man able to live with Long’s speed and aggression on Sunday. The most important factor of Long’s pass rushing was the immediacy of his disruption. The Saints have long had some pass protection issues but the emphasis on quick passing often enables them to skirt around these issues, but Long was beating the Saints’ right tackles so quickly that Drew Brees couldn’t overcome them this time. Long’s sack at 1:41 in the fourth quarter killed the momentum of what became a consolation drive for the Saints, but truth be told it was the work he did before than that helped ensure a first victory for the Rams.
A sixth round pick is a bargain for one of the best (over the past year and a bit) receivers in the NFL and this week Brandon Lloyd (-2.4) showed the potential to repay the Rams handsomely on that investment. At the same time however he also parsed in two frustrating drops, a penalty as he tried desperately to recover on a play on which he was beaten, and the occasional miscommunication to be expected with a mid-season arrival. His touchdown catch showed off his ability to find gaps in coverage and his catch on a comeback to the right sideline at 5:17 in the fourth quarter showed off his exceptional ability on passes to the sideline. A drop on a slant on the opening play of the fourth quarter will surely frustrate him as that play was setup for him to go 76 yards for a touchdown. The grade for this game may be poor for Lloyd but there should be enough encouragement in here for the Rams that when Sam Bradford returns to action these two could hit it.
Steven Jackson – The Workhorse
Both in his play on the field and his demeanor on the sideline it was obvious for all to see that this was a game that Steven Jackson (+2.3) wanted. Whether it be simply that it was a game to win or a game with special meaning, Jackson was desperate to get that goose egg out of the win column. Jackson only forced one missed tackle (his best games usually feature more) but he was able to take what his offensive line gave him and more. He ran as hard as ever, picking up a season high 79 yards after contact and ruthlessly exposed the Saints’ penchant for over pursuing in run defense, catching them napping in particular on his second touchdown run. If Jackson can round in to form as the season continues and the Rams get Bradford back healthy and hooked up with Brandon Lloyd the St Louis could be primed for the role of spoiler in the NFC playoff hunt in the second half of the season. They will certainly provide a sterner test for teams they face in the second half of the season than those they did in the opening two months of the year.
- When Christopher Ivory is in the game it’s fair to say he’s going to get the ball. He carried on all 6 snaps he was in the game this week. Last season he carried the ball on 140 of his 195 snaps.
- Drew Brees didn’t have the time to take the deep shots that the Saints look for in every game. Brees was 0/2 with an interception on his only passes aimed more than 20 yards downfield.
- James Laurinaitis registered season highs in defensive stops, six, and pass defenses with two.
PFF Game Ball
His run defense may have been as non-existent as ever but Chris Long was utterly destructive as a pass rusher. It’s not often that the timing of the New Orleans passing game is disrupted, but Long achieved just that.
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