4:25 PM EST, CBS – Line: Rams -2.5, Over/Under: 53.5
Parity is alive in the NFL, as the surprising Los Angeles Rams host the New Orleans Saints in a matchup featuring a pair of teams that after years of mediocrity have suddenly found themselves leading their respective divisions. For the Saints (8-2, 1st in NFC South), three consecutive 7-9 campaigns put them in a position of reevaluation, forced to consider that the end of the highly successful Drew Brees/Sean Payton partnership that resurrected this franchise from the ashes of Hurricane Katrina, had come to an end. With the 38-Year Old Quarterback nearing the end of his Hall of Fame Career, and the veteran Head Coach flirting with other franchises, this certainly appeared to be the case. However, before we reach the conclusion of their stay in the Big Easy, they seem to have a for more tricks up their sleeves, for you’d be hard-pressed to find another team in the league as hot as New Orleans, who after dropping their first two outings to begin the season, have strung together eight consecutive victories. The story though isn’t so much that they’re winning games, but HOW they’re doing it; the Saints are grinding these wins out largely on the strength of a punishing Rushing Attack, and a vastly improved Defense. Let’s start on Offense, where Payton’s charges are once again lighting up scoreboards averaging 30.2 Points (3rd Overall) on a league-best 422.3 Total Yards (1st Overall), with Brees (71.6%, 278.3 Y/G, 7.74 NY/A, 15 TD, 5 INT) continuing to play at a high level. On the ground, the dynamic duo of Mark Ingram (155 CAR, 806 YDS, 8 TD) and Alvin Kamara (121 Touches, 906 Total YDS, 7 TD) has brought a sensational balance to an oftentimes one-dimensional attack, spearheading a Running Game that has trampled opponents to the tune of 144.0 Yards per Game (3rd Overall), while leading the NFL in both Rushing Touchdowns (15) and Yards per Carry (4.8). Furthermore, since their Bye Week back in early October, they’ve averaged a whopping 177.3 Yards, including a ridiculous 298 two weeks ago in a 47-10 romp at the Buffalo Bills. Kamara, in particular, has been a revelation, proving to be deadly as a Receiver out of the Backfield, which is something that can be used to devastating effect in this scheme. Is it any coincidence that he flourished once the team parted ways with Adrian Peterson, whom simply didn’t appear to fit into Payton’s Gameplan? Since Peterson’s departure, Kamara has hauled in Thirty-Nine Receptions on Forty-Four Targets for 371 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while averaging 9.51 Yards per Catch. With that said, arguably the bigger story has been the play of the Defense, which had been absolutely abysmal over the last three years; between 2014 and 2016, the Saints had finished no better than Twenty-Eighth in Points Allowed, and no better than Twenty-Seventh in Total Defense, negating one of the most consistently explosive Offenses in the process. 2017 though, has been a different story entirely, for New Orleans has allowed 19.6 Points per Game (8th Overall) on 326.7 Total Yards (13th Overall), including 211.3 versus the Pass (9th Overall) on 5.9 Net Yards per Attempt (13th Overall), and another 115.4 against the Run (20th Overall) on 4.7 Yards per Carry (30th Overall). Despite their struggles on this side of the ball, they’ve managed to draft well, with Rookie Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (36 TKL, 2 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD, 1 FR) playing like an All-Pro, while Safety Kenny Vaccaro (38 TKL, 0.5 SK, 3 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD) appears to be reborn after being nearly traded multiple times a year ago. And keep this in mind: Payton’s troops allowed Thirty-One Points in last weekend’s 34-31 Overtime triumph against the Washington Redskins, marking just the third time this season that they’ve relinquished Thirty or more Points, whereas they doubled that figure a year ago. Granted, the Rush Defense can be viewed as worrisome, but with the Offense playing at such a high level, the Defense is rarely playing without the benefit of a lead, which allows them to simply pin their collective ears back and attack the Backfield. Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen has done a remarkable job with this unit, which has registered a healthy Twenty-Seven Sacks thus far (12th Overall), led by Defensive End Cameron Jordan (42 TKL, 8.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT,1 TD, 5 PD), and a reborn Manti Te’o (35 TKL, 1 PD) at Linebacker. Now we’re going to see just what kind of depth this group possesses, for despite earning the win they did not escape their battle with the Redskins unscathed; Edge Rusher Alex Okafor (43 TKL, 4.5 SK, 2 FF, 3 PD) was lost for the season to a torn Achilles, while Starting Linebacker AJ Klein (Ankle) is listed as Questionable, with the aforementioned Lattimore (Ankle) and Vaccaro (Groin) doubtful with various injuries.
Meanwhile, the feel good story of the 2017 NFL Season has got to be the Rams (7-3, 1st in NFC West) who stand poised to return to the Playoffs for the first time since 2004. And all it seemingly took was the right man in place to lead them… Seriously, folks, if Sean McVay doesn’t run away the Coach of the Year Award, then we’d demand a recount, for the youthful 31-Year Old Skipper has been an absolute revelation for a franchise that never could take that next step under the previous regime. The former Redskins’ Offensive Coordinator has completely overhauled the Offense, not necessarily from a personnel perspective, but from a philosophical one, and it sure has paid dividends; in 2016, Los Angeles’ Offense was arguably the most mundane in the league, ranking dead-last in both Scoring (14.0) and Total Offense (285.4), only to see those figures increase exponentially to 30.3 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on a healthy 386.0 Total Yards (4th Overall). While it might be a bit premature to compare them with the franchise’s Greatest Show on Turf days, it cannot be denied just how much more effective this group as a whole has been under McVay’s watch. And that’s been no more evident than with Sophomore Quarterback Jared Goff. The former No. One Overall Pick (whom the franchise moved mountains to obtain) looked like an unmitigated disaster a year ago, completing a miserable 54.6% of his Attempts for an average of 155.6 Yards on a miniscule 3.75 Net Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns and Seven Interceptions in Seven Starts after being withheld from the Playing Field for over half the season by what now looks like an inept Coaching Staff. Simply put, the kid looked lost, behind a sieve of an Offensive Line, no semblance of a Running Game, and a complete and utter lack of quality playmakers in the Passing Game. Enter McVay, whom worked wonders with Kirk Cousins in Washington, and has since applied his golden touch to Goff; oh, what a difference a new Coach makes as the second-year Signal-Caller has completed 61.3% of his Passes for an average of 261.0 Yards on 7.32 Net Yards per Attempt, with Sixteen Touchdowns in comparison to Four Interceptions. Granted, Management made it a point to build around their young Star as well, bolstering the Offensive Line with the additions of veterans such as Left Tackle Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan, while trading for former Buffalo Bills Receiver Sammy Watkins (24 REC, 408 YDS, 4 TD), himself an underachieving, yet highly regarded prospect, who was in dire need of change of scenery. And then there’s Todd Gurley, the former 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year, whom struggled immensely in his own Sophomore campaign, only to flourish once more in this new scheme and culture. A year after rushing for just 885 Yards and Six Touchdowns on an uninspiring 3.3 Yards per Carry, Gurley has looked far more like he did two years ago, racking up 791 Yards and Eight Scores thus far on 4.2 Yards per Carry. However, the major difference with this kid has been his growth as a Receiver out of the Backfield, which was a skill that was rarely featured throughout his first two years in the league; through ten games, Gurley has hauled in Thirty-Eight Passes for 425 Yards and Three Touchdowns, after posting Sixty-four Receptions for 515 Yards in his first two seasons combined. This means he went from accumulating 86.4 All-Purpose Yards per Game through the first Twenty-Nine Game of his career, to averaging a much more productive 121.6 Yards in 2017, making the attack more dynamic in the process. Another brilliant move on McVay’s part was procuring the services of Wade Phillips as his Defensive Coordinator, with the long-time Coach bringing an experienced hand to the film room and the field. The Defense has been aggressive, racking up Twenty-Eight Sacks (11th Overall) thus far, while feasting on Turnovers, registering Nineteen (4th Overall), including a dozen Interceptions (4th Overall). With that said, this is still very much a unit in transition, as they continue to move towards Phillips’ preferred 3-4 Defensive Front, for they’ve been gashed routinely on the ground, which is certainly something that McVay and Phillips would have harped on throughout the week with the Saints’ powerful Ground Game coming to town. On the season, the Rams have yielded 123.3 Rushing Yards per Game (28th Overall) on 4.5 Yards per Carry (27th Overall), with the opposition steamrolling them on 154.0 Yards in their three losses this year. In last weekend’s 27-7 loss at the Minnesota Vikings, they simply couldn’t get off the field, as the hosts punished them on 171 Rushing Yards on Thirty-Five Carries, parlaying to a commanding 37:22 Time of Possession.