Defensively, the New Orleans Saints haven't played a regular-season snap with defensive tackle Nick Fairley and cornerback Delvin Breaux, two likely starters. They lost rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone, another starter, to injury in the fourth game, safety Kenny Vaccaro missed two games with a groin injury (he projects to play in Sunday's road game against the Los Angeles Rams) and they'll be without defensive end Alex Okafor (torn Achilles) for the rest of the season after he was injured against Washington.
Yet the Saints are significantly improved defensively this season – tied for eighth in scoring (19.6), 13th in total defense (326.7 yards allowed) and ninth in passing defense (211.3). That's down from 28.4 points allowed last season, 375.5 yards allowed per game and 273.8 passing yards.
Improved play has allowed the team to climb the defensive rankings, and improved depth has allowed it to withstand crucial losses, and those have been contributing factors to the Saints (8-2) winning eight straight entering Sunday's game.
"I think we've had the right amount of veterans where we've been able to bring a few guys in during the offseason," Coach Sean Payton said Thursday morning during a teleconference with local media. "Certainly in the draft, the younger players are all playing. When you have a draft, there's an uncertainty as to how and how quickly guys will contribute. Fortunately some of these younger guys have played and are starting."
Regarding the rookie class, Payton again acknowledged that it has been an impactful one.
"They're playing good football," he said. "Let's not put them in Canton (Ohio), yet. But I think at some point during training camp, you saw (running back Alvin) Kamara's skill-set in the preseason. A run against San Diego – he was catching the ball very well, but you saw him come on as a runner.
"With (cornerback Marshon) Lattimore, he's healthy during camp and all of a sudden you started seeing (at) the latter part of camp and the preseason, the confidence coming. (Offensive tackle Ryan) Ramczyk's been steady and we didn't have him during the OTAs and the rookie camp, but his rehab went well. He's got a real sharp football mind and a demeanor that I think suits his position. He's done a fantastic job of handling both the left and the right side.
"With (defensive lineman Trey) Hendrickson, he's someone right away, you saw some things that you felt like were going to correlate to being able to play early. (Defensive end) Al-Quadin Muhammad is another guy. They've all shown some glimpses. (Safety) Marcus Williams right away, you saw his ball skills in camp, he's smart. They're still learning, they're still growing and gaining confidence and I think that the playing time helps them."
EVERY DOWN BACK:This season has been a huge bounce-back year for Rams running back Todd Gurley. Two years ago, as a rookie, Gurley ran for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns on 229 carries in 13 games, and caught 21 passes for 188 yards. Last year, despite playing all 16 games, he dipped to 885 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 278 carries, and had 43 catches for 327 yards.
This year, he has run for 791 yards and eight touchdowns on 187 carries, and has caught 38 passes for 425 yards and three scores.
"He's strong," Payton said. "I think he's got tremendous balance and I think he's got this burst through a hole that you saw on college tape, where he can hit it and crease you quickly. He's very comfortable catching the football, he can block the pressure. He checks these boxes; there's not one area where you say, 'Well, he can only catch check downs.' He's a valuable target in the passing game but an extremely explosive runner."