There aren’t many secrets in this one.
True, the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams possibly can add a wrinkle or two to the offensive and defensive repertoires, which might – might – catch the other team off guard. But the Saints (1-0) and Rams (1-0) have seen a lot of each other recently; Sunday’s game will be the fourth time they’ve played in the last three seasons, including twice last season.
Of course the Saints remember the NFC Championship Game. No reason for denial; detachment is impossible. A victory wouldn’t be a “revenge” win, not in a regular-season game the following year. But it would be a good, tough, road win against the reigning NFC champions and if that’s not enough to juice New Orleans, not much else will be.
Here are a few ways to make that happen:
- Offensively, the Saints found their sweet spot in the second half of the season opener: 27 points, 329 yards (127 rushing) and a game-winning field goal as time expired. They’ll need a faster start on the road against the Rams, because three points and 0-for-2 in the red zone, like they were against Houston in the first half, might be insurmountable. Drew Brees was fantastic (32 of 43 for 370 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception) against the Texans, and a major part of that was the work submitted by right tackle Ryan Ramczyk against Houston’s J.J. Watt. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is better than Watt; he’s better than any defensive lineman – any defender, actually – in the NFL. And because he works inside, he’ll help provide a stern test for Saints rookie center Erik McCoy. New Orleans has to keep Brees clean, as usual. But it’s heightened against this opponent because if Donald is having his way, Los Angeles can sit back in coverage. He can be a one-man pressure package and the Saints hope to neutralize him.
- In Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, the Rams have two cornerbacks they love to use in man-to-man coverage. That makes Michael Thomas’ eyes light up. He and Peters seem to share a mutual dislike for one another, but it’ll be worth watching whomever matches up against Thomas, who arguably is the most physical receiver in the league. This could be fun. But, too, keep an eye on Saints tight end Jared Cook. He might play an important role in this one; big, agile target who can take advantage down the middle. New Orleans needs “wins” in its man-to-man matchups and it has players (don’t forget running back Alvin Kamara) capable of doing that.
- It’s rare to allow 180 rushing yards, and a touchdown, on 23 carries and have a happy ending. The Saints were gashed several times by the Texans, and they’ll have to be more disciplined against the run against the Rams. They were the second-best run defense in the league last year, and it’ll help that defensive tackle David Onyemata returns after his one-game suspension. Gap integrity is important; Rams running back Todd Gurley (14 carries, 97 yards) looked healthy in the opener and Malcolm Brown (11 carries, 53 yards, two touchdowns) was more than adequate when he was on the field. Linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein will be factors.
- No offense to Jared Goff, who’s a mobile quarterback, but New Orleans is glad to have Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson in the rear-view mirror. Watson’s agility was a huge problem. The Saints managed to pound him (six sacks, 11 quarterback hits) and he still was efficient and effective. New Orleans had a great rush plan for Watson, and it’ll have a similarly good one for Goff. But Cam Jordan (one sack), Trey Hendrickson (two sacks) and the rest have to get there. Goff may not be as slippery and, perhaps more, the Saints have to hope that if they hammer him as often as they did Watson, it’ll have a cumulative effect at the end.
- Watch the special teams. You might not see a better set of punters (New Orleans’ Thomas Morstead and Los Angeles’ Johnny Hekker) and kickers (the Saints’ Wil Lutz and the Rams’ Greg Zuerlein) on the same NFL field this season. They might cancel out each other. The Saints have to hope that rookie returner Deonte Harris has his first-game jitters out of the way, because he made a couple of mistakes that could’ve been costly. Oh, and watch out for a Rams fake punt; they don’t mind attempting one from just about anywhere on the field, and they successfully executed one in the NFC Championship Game. New Orleans also hasn’t been bashful about that, either – watch out for Taysom Hill – so pay attention because a successful fake usually is a momentum-shifting play.