3TFO: Saints @ Rams: Week 15
Coming into this week, the Saints intend to solidify their hold on the NFC South and continue working toward a first-round bye. With a very good Panthers team right behind them, any sort of lapse down the stretch could mean an away game to start the playoffs. New Orleans will need to bring their ‘A’ game, because the Rams have already defeated three different teams who are currently above .500.
Although back-to-back losses have eliminated any realistic shot with St. Louis making the playoffs, the team has plenty of rising stars who play hard every week. Many will look at this as a game that the Saints should easily win, but let’s examine some of the key matchups that could swing the outcome either way.
Robert Quinn vs. Charles Brown
In Robert Quinn, the Rams have the most dominant 4-3 defensive end in the league this year. The amount of quick pressure that he generates can cause so many problems for opposing offenses. He regularly uses his speed off the edge to blow past slow-footed tackles, which then sets up his inside move, leaving the tackle in front of him unable to contain him. Aside from that, Quinn happens to be an excellent run defender as well. His Run Stop Percentage of 8.2 ties him with Carlos Dunlap for 5th among 4-3 DEs, and his +14.9 run defense grade ranks 3rd.
Left with the unenviable task of blocking Quinn is 4th year left tackle Charles Brown. On the season, Brown has done a solid job of run blocking, but he had a rough start in pass protection. Through the first 10 games, Brown had a pass blocking grade of -12.7. In that span, he allowed five sacks, seven hits, and 29 hurries. However, over the last three games, Brown has a pass blocking grade of +4.3, and has given up just three hurries with no sacks or hits. This includes games against the Seahawks and Panthers, both of whom have excellent edge rushers. Given his recent success, the Saints may decide to leave Brown one-on-one with Quinn if he seems to be able to hold his own. If that doesn’t work, Ben Watson will likely line up to Quinn’s side and provide some extra help as an in-line blocking tight end. The Rams desperately need to get pressure with the pass rush in order to avoid having the secondary picked apart, and Quinn is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL right now.
Saints Passing Game vs. Rams Coverage
Whether the Rams can pressure Drew Brees consistently or not, they’ll need to cover… and better than they have so far. Currently, no member of the Rams secondary has a positive coverage grade. Last week as a coverage unit, the Rams allowed 27-of-32 passes to be completed for 269 yards and a TD, including 139 yards after catch. Most of the damage was done on short and intermediate routes in the middle of the field. That’s where Drew Brees happens to do some of his best work. When throwing under 20 yards downfield inside the numbers, Brees has a completion percentage of 80.6 and has thrown 13 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
Jimmy Graham has plenty to do with that success, as he tends to make big plays every game and constantly poses a threat over the middle. In addition, Marques Colston provides another big target capable of making catches in traffic. Once they’re accounted for, the defense still has to worry about Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, both of whom thrive in the Saints excellent screen game. Combined, the two running backs have caught 122-of-135 targets, with only two drops from Thomas and none from Sproles. If the Rams are going to contain this New Orleans passing game, they’ll need to win between the numbers, reduce yards after catch, and force lower percentage throws.
Will Zac Bounce Back?
Since entering the starting lineup, Zac Stacy has invigorated the Rams running game. Running with power and mowing down defenders in his path, Stacy has played a key role ever since Week 5. However, Stacy has seen a pretty major drop in production that has gone under the radar due to his recent increase in touchdowns. In Weeks 5 through 9 (five games), he gained 474 yards on 102 carries, good for a 4.64 average. He also forced 22 missed tackles and picked up 292 yards after contact in that span.
All of those numbers have decreased significantly over the past four games, in which Stacy has gained 246 yards on 71 carries (3.46 yards per carry), forcing just one missed tackle, and grinding out 120 yards after contact. Interestingly, his yards before contact have remained almost identical (1.78 vs. 1.77). This explains why he earned positive grades in four of those first five games, but only once since then. Establishing a strong running game is especially critical when facing a quarterback like Drew Brees. The Rams need to keep Brees off the field, and a return to form by Stacy would go a long way towards that.
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