The Los Angeles Rams have been the story of the 2018 offseason.
Led by a second-year quarterback (Jared Goff), a third-year operating again (Todd Gurley), and a head coach youthful than a few of his gamers (Sean McVay), this re-re-located franchise rode an offensive surge from Four-12 to 11-5 final season, they usually spent most of this offseason buying each massive defensive identify they might to enrich best-in-the-league deal with Aaron Donald whereas by some means skirting the wage cap. Ndamukong Suh got here from Miami. Marcus Peters got here from Kansas Metropolis. Aqib Talib got here from Denver. Dante Fowler Jr. got here from Jacksonville midseason.
This was as a lot of an all-in technique as we’ve seen in the cap period. Figuring out that they had solely a small window to reap the benefits of Goff’s rookie contract and encompass him with a flood of expertise earlier than contracts needed to begin getting offloaded — that they had two years at most, actually — they went for it.
The gambit kind of paid off in 2018. Regardless that the protection by no means utterly got here collectively, slowed down by accidents and big-play points in the secondary, Los Angeles completed 13-Three, tied for the greatest document in the league. They’re one win from the Tremendous Bowl.
Aaron Donald (99), Michael Brockers (90), and Ndamukong Suh (93)Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports activities
Their fundamental drawback: the Saints additionally went 13-Three. And due to a 45-35 win over Los Angeles on November Four, they’re internet hosting the NFC Championship. They’re a half-touchdown favourite over the Rams — almost the margin of the home-field benefit they earned two and a half months in the past — and they’re certainly one of solely a few groups which might be arguably higher than McVay’s staff at the second. In response to FiveThirtyEight, the Rams have the lowest odds amongst the 4 remaining groups of profitable the Tremendous Bowl.
Going all-in and giving your self a hard and fast window of time to win a title is each thrilling and terrifying; even when the whole lot works out as you need it to, you continue to need to win a single-elimination event at the finish of the yr. You’re nonetheless a flip of the coin from watching your plans fail.
Eighty-five %. That may be a reasonably good catch price for a operating again who catches a variety of checkdowns and flare passes. It might be exceptional for a large receiver.
The 28 NFL wideouts focused at the very least 100 occasions mixed for a more-than-respectable 66 % catch price, and solely seven topped 70 %. However there’s Michael Thomas, catching 125 of 147 passes, eight-five % of them, for the season.
Thomas is emblematic of New Orleans’ offense: absurdly environment friendly, if barely much less explosive than a few of its friends. Of these 100-target wideouts, solely six averaged fewer yards per catch than Thomas’ 11.2, and of the most effective passing assaults in the league, solely Atlanta was much less explosive. However in case you can’t work out the best way to rush quarterback Drew Brees, you’ll die by way of 1,000 paper cuts.
The Rams know this in addition to anybody. In New Orleans’ November win over Los Angeles, Thomas was formally focused 15 occasions; of the first 13 targets, just one was thrown additional than 12 yards from the line of scrimmage. He caught 10 brief passes for 121 yards over the first three and a half quarters, after which, with the recreation tied at 35-35, he went deep over the center to arrange a subject aim, then caught a bomb (nicely, the Saints’ model of a bomb) down the left sideline for the game-clinching landing.
New Orleans’ output towards the Rams was the good mixture of the Saints’ effectivity (first in passing marginal effectivity) and the Rams’ big-play leakiness (third-worst in passing marginal explosiveness). Nick them till they get determined, then gash them.
Should you’re Los Angeles, you’ve gotten to be ok with the proven fact that, with Talib on the sideline and Thomas enjoying extremely properly, you have been nonetheless tied halfway via the fourth quarter. That you simply hurried Brees solely 4 occasions in 36 passes and by no means sacked him, nevertheless, has to make you are feeling … much less good.
In the New Orleans offense, principally three guys contact the ball: Thomas and operating backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Of the Saints’ 982 mixed regular-season carries and targets, this trio had 611 of them. The Rams contained Kamara and Ingram (mixed: 35 meant touches for 152 yards, solely Four.Three per IT) and will achieve this once more on Sunday afternoon. However that they had no concept learn how to cease Brees-to-Thomas. Now they get one other probability.
Michael ThomasDerick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports activities
The Rams have been certainly with out Talib towards the Saints, however they have been additionally with receiver Cooper Kupp, who would tear his ACL every week later. New Orleans did an outstanding job of limiting Gurley’s output (20 meant touches, 79 yards) that the Rams wanted Thomasian mixed manufacturing from Kupp and Brandin Cooks (14 targets, 11 catches, 203 yards) to catch up after falling behind early.
The Rams scored 51 factors on the Chiefs the week after Kupp’s damage, however their manufacturing slowed briefly from there. After averaging 35 factors and 449 yards per recreation by way of 11 contests, they averaged 20 and 322, respectively, whereas dropping two of their subsequent three video games. So with the passing recreation barely hamstrung, they redoubled their dashing efforts.
By way of 14 video games, the Rams had rushed for greater than 150 yards 3 times; they’ve now carried out so in every of their final three video games. They straight-up mauled a superb Cowboys protection every week in the past, with Gurley and bowling ball/journeyman C.J. Anderson combining for 238 yards on 39 carries.
Not solely did Los Angeles signal Anderson in mid-December, after he had been reduce by Carolina and Oakland, however they’ve put him to work: he’s carried 66 occasions for 422 yards in his three video games in a Rams uniform. Whereas stopping Gurley has been an apparent key for beating Los Angeles — he averaged 6 yards per meant contact in wins and solely Four.7 in losses this season — Anderson’s emergence has probably modified the equation a bit, particularly mixed with some dominance up entrance.
C.J. AndersonKirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports activities
We’ll see what meaning towards the Saints. Per DVOA, New Orleans was certainly one of the solely defenses in the league that defended the run higher than Dallas. The Saints ranked sixth in dashing effectivity and first in dashing explosiveness — they aren’t the most disruptive protection in the league, however linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein and security Vonn Bell don’t miss tackles.
With out defensive deal with Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles early in final week’s win over Philadelphia, the Saints could possibly be a bit extra weak up entrance. They weren’t towards the Eagles, thoughts you — Philly’s Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles gained simply 18 yards in 9 carries after Rankins’ damage —however with Gurley refreshed and Anderson doing an awesome Brief Jerome Bettis impersonation, the Rams will check New Orleans’ entrance considerably.
Particular groups didn’t play an enormous position on this yr’s first Saints-Rams recreation — there have been solely three punts, in any case. However Greg Zuerlein did miss an extended second-quarter subject objective that would have come in useful afterward, and immortal New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead did down the Rams inside their 20 twice. (It didn’t matter, as Los Angeles turned these two factors into 10 factors, however nonetheless.)
New Orleans has simply had the higher particular groups unit right here, particularly in the two ways in which matter most: punting and place-kicking. If particular groups truly do play extra of a task this time round, that in all probability favors the residence workforce.
Not together with their Brees-less, meaningless Week 17 loss to Carolina, New Orleans has scored at the very least 20 factors in each house recreation this yr and has scored no less than 31 factors six of eight occasions.
The Saints’ protection, nevertheless, has been fairly a bit extra risky, which has made them one in every of the extra unpredictable groups in the league towards the unfold. They gave up a mixed 21 factors in two residence wins over Philadelphia, they usually held an environment friendly Atlanta offense to 17 factors on Thanksgiving. However additionally they gave up 48 factors to Tampa Bay in Week 1, plus 35 to the Rams and 28 to the Steelers.
Granted, that Tampa recreation was a very long time in the past, however from the perspective of unfold efficiency, New Orleans has been much more up-and-down. Regardless of the fairly tight Vegas line, each a 20-point Saints win and a 14-point Saints loss are on the desk.
Brees simply turned 40 years previous and is 2 wins from his second Tremendous Bowl ring, which might be as many as Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, greater than Aaron Rodgers, and so forth. His 74 % completion fee in 2018 was the highest of his profession, and this in all probability isn’t his final shot at stated second ring, nevertheless it is perhaps his greatest shot.
In the meantime, although different franchises often wait till you truly win the Tremendous Bowl to start imitating you want loopy, we’re already seeing the McVay Impact emanating all through the league; simply think about how different groups may try and copycat McVay’s offensive leanings, particularly after he engineered a late-season shift in these leanings.
Think about, too, what may occur round the league if the Rams’ all-in-for-a-ring maneuvering truly produces a hoop. We talked all offseason about their daring strikes; now we discover out in the event that they repay.
My prediction: Saints 31, Rams 28
Drew BreesChuck Prepare dinner-USA TODAY Sports activities
If Rankins’ damage seems pricey, and if the Rams are not any extra able to slowing Thomas with Talib than they have been with out him, then this recreation might cross the similar 80-point threshold that the first battle did. However we’ll say each groups are somewhat extra cautious, and each defenses sluggish the run recreation sufficient to drive sufficient third-and-longs to maintain the level complete tamped down this time.
New Orleans’ volatility opens up the risk of a double-digit win for both workforce, nevertheless it’s arduous to ascertain something aside from a super-tight, fun-as-hell contest. The primary one definitely was, even when the Saints scored a late-round knockout.