Looking to snap a two-game losing streak, the New Orleans Saints (4-6) take on a difficult opponent Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Los Angeles Rams (4-6) don't score a lot (14.9 points per game), but they don't allow opponents too, either (18.7). Here are a few things that could be essential to a New Orleans victory:
- A clean showing in the kicking game is an absolute must for the Saints, and it's something that, prior to the season, Coach Sean Payton likely wouldn't have envisioned being a major concern heading into the 11th game of the season. But Kevin O'Dea was brought in to oversee the snap-hold-kick operation, which has been unstable. Rookie kicker Wil Lutz has had, in the previous two games, a point-after attempt blocked and returned for the game-winning two-point conversion against Denver, and a field goal attempt blocked and transformed into a touchdown right before halftime against Carolina. Add to that a field goal that was blocked and returned for a touchdown against the Giants, and two other kicks that were tipped before successfully passing through the uprights, and opponents are confident that they can block a Saints kick. New Orleans has to eliminate that confidence, and it only can do so by stringing together several clean kicking games.
2. Drew Brees has been one of the best-protected quarterbacks in the league this season, only having been sacked 16 times despite throwing more often (42 attempts per game) than any other passer. The Rams are going to send pressure, so the Saints' offensive line execution will be huge. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for creating pressure packages, so Brees' recognition will be tested (it'll help that, besides being one of the league's most cerebral quarterbacks, he had three years of experience practicing against Williams' defenses when Williams was the Saints' defensive coordinator from 2009-11). Worth noting: The Rams only have allowed 187 points this season (18.7 per game), but 136 of those points allowed have been scored in the second and fourth quarters. The Saints have finished strong offensively in the last two games, scoring 20 in the second half against Denver and 17 in the fourth quarter against Carolina.
- What if I told you that the Saints had a running back who, through 10 games, had run for 941 yards and three touchdowns on 210 carries (4.5-yard average), and had caught 43 passes for 339 yards and three more scores? Would you take those numbers? Because that's what has been done by the combination of Mark Ingram II (122 carries for 575 yards and two touchdowns; 29 catches for 227 yards and three touchdowns) and Tim Hightower (88 carries for 366 yards and a score; 14 catches for 112 yards). The running game likely will also play a crucial role against the Rams. Ingram left the Carolina game with a concussion, but practiced this week. In his absence, Hightower filled in and helped fuel the second-half comeback against the Panthers, when the Saints scored 17 points before falling short in a 23-20 loss. The yards they gain will keep the Saints' offense balanced, and perhaps keep the Rams off balance. And they'll help in the pass protection packages, too.
- All due respect to the Rams offense, but the Saints defense has every reason to be optimistic at the thought of getting on the field Sunday. Los Angeles will have a rookie quarterback, No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, who will be making his second start, after completing 17 of 31 passes for 134 yards in his debut. Last year's rookie star, running back Todd Gurley, has been held to 591 yards and four touchdowns on 187 carries in 10 games, after running for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns on 229 carries in 13 games in 2015. The Rams are the lowest-scoring team in the league (14.9 points per game), next-to-last in total offense (299.9 yards per game), fifth-worst in passing yards (215.4) and fourth-worst in rushing (84.5). And the quarterbacks have been sacked 24 times (though, in fairness, 23 of those sacks belong to Case Keenum). Meanwhile, defensively, the Saints appear to be heading in the right direction – they've allowed an average of 20.4 points in the last five games, with no opponent scoring more than 23, after allowing an average of 30.8 points in the first five games. Los Angeles has scored 10 or fewer points in each of its last four games, so this appears to be an offense that's catching the Saints' defense at the wrong time (or the right time, if you're a Saints fan).