On one hand, the St Louis Rams have to be relieved to be playing anyone not in their own division, after the disappointing beatdowns of the past two weeks against the Cardinals and 49ers. On the other hand, they will be facing a New Orleans Saints team that is charging toward the season's finish line with faint hopes of earning home field advantage still alive.
The Saints appear to be every bit as potent as they were before 2012's succession of scandals and punishments swamped the team. How have they made the leap back, despite two tumultuous offseasons? We reached out to the Saints Nation blog on Bloguin for insight.
RamsHerd: The Rams interviewed Rob Ryan for their defensive coordinator position, and seemed on the verge of hiring him before going another way. How would the Saints season have changed without his defense?
Saints Nation: Oh man, I can't even imagine a season without Rob Ryan. He has transformed this team. I feel bad saying that to you since he really did pull a (fill in the blank) move by accepting the Rams job and then bolting after the commitment. Very Billy Donovan of him.
Anyway, he turned the worst defense in NFL history into a top 10 defense. What more needs to be said? The timing was good, too, because the offense has declined a little bit this year largely due to a drop off in offensive line play. The Saints went 7-9 with an elite offense and the worst defense in NFL history last year. This year the offense is just "very good" and the defense is very good as well. They're actually playing at about an even level, and the result is a 10-3 team.
The defense couldn't have been any worse regardless of who was brought in to replace Steve Spagnuolo, but without Ryan this is easily an 8-8 type team because the offense would not have made up for a horrific defense this year. And it really is mostly Ryan, he's just a genius coach and has an incredible scheme that's player friendly. He has a lot of young players reaching their potential too. I couldn't stand the Ryans and I hated this hire, but I stand corrected.
They really are special coaches, and so is Payton by the way. In the last two years I've learned that having very good coaching is a major advantage even at the highest level. There is a large degree of separation between "the best" and "pretty good".
RamsHerd: Sean Payton has created an elite passing offense in New Orleans without elite weapons at WR. (We’ll call Jimmy Graham a TE for now.) How do they do it, and why aren’t more teams successful in copying his methods?
Saints Nation: This offense isn't half as good without a quarterback like Drew Brees executing it. Ask anyone in New Orleans and he's the best quarterback in history. That's a total homer statement, but I do believe he is a perfect fit for THIS offense. I'm not sure many guys would run it better, outside maybe Peyton Manning.
Brees' footwork is what makes him elite. He may not have the strongest arm or the fastest legs, but his technique are footwork are picture perfect. His footwork in the pocket is the best in NFL history, period. That's why he's so accurate, and that's why he can avoids sacks so well. Because of the accuracy, good coverage or not, the ball is always in the perfect spot. He puts decent players in a position to make plays. He puts elite players (Jimmy Graham) in a position to put up hall of fame numbers.
Brees also gets the ball out in a hurry, which avoids the play extending… that's when you get sacks, penalties etc… it's all about timing. You don't get timing without countless reps and work. It sounds cliche, but no one puts in more work than Brees.
RamsHerd: The Saints are one of the NFC’s top teams again after a lost season in 2012, but it seems the NFC West might still be blocking their path to a Super Bowl. What did you learn from your recent matchup with the Seahawks, and where do the Saints need to improve?
Saints Nation: The Seahawks are better, plain and simple.
Look, it was one game. The Saints can play much better than that, and the Seahawks can play worse. But the bottom line is the Saints are a dome team. They're built to win in good conditions where they can throw the football. It's not stupid to build them that way, by the way, because they play in a Dome, Atlanta is in a Dome, Tampa plays in nice weather… that means at least 10 of 16 games are in perfect conditions for them each year. This isn't rocket science, everyone knows it.
Seattle is a pound the rock offense that plays elite defense. The freezing weather and rain in their stadium is a huge advantage to the way they play against a team like the Saints. So things like penalties, turnovers and mental mistakes can be the equalizer, but in a situation like that there is no question Seattle is an immense favorite. Weaker teams than the Saints that are run first would have a better shot in that environment, honestly.
Unfortunately for the Saints, they made the mental mistakes, penalties and turnovers in that game… so it was a skull dragging. But less wind/precipitation would be nice if they have to go to Seattle again. No doubt it would be a very hard mountain to climb. Too bad we didn't get that team in New Orleans, I like the Saints chances against anyone at home.
RamsHerd: The Saints are only one game back of Seattle in the NFC. How important would it be to win out and maintain a shot at homefield advantage through the playoffs?
Saints Nation: Yeah, piggy backing on that last question, it's paramount. It's huge. It's not impossible for the Saints to win in Seattle, but I don't like the odds at all. The Saints can beat anyone at home. Their one Super Bowl title came through them getting home field advantage. And honestly, the Super Bowl being in New Jersey doesn't bode well if they made it that far.
It's not about being soft or allergic to the cold or anything… the Saints are just a passing team and it's MUCH MUCH harder to pass in freezing weather. I think the chances of the Saints getting there are much increased if they can get homefield. At the very least they can secure the 2 seed with a win over Carolina next week and maybe they get lucky and someone goes to Seattle and does the dirty work for them!
RamsHerd: The Rams are a little hobbled, but they are young, motivated and playing at home. How would you gameplan against New Orleans, and how do you think this game plays out?
Saints Nation: Press coverage is important because if you have a good pass rush, Brees will get the ball out fast. Jamming the receivers is key. The problem is if you don't do a good job, you can really get hurt badly. Obviously if you can get pressure with four and you don't have to blitz, that's big.
If you do jam the receivers well, then Brees will either get sacked or he can throw picks. Almost all his interceptions this year have been to linebackers where they show blitz at the line of scrimmage and then start to rush before they drop into passing lanes at the last second. That's how you can get a turnover against him.
On offense I think you pound Zac Stacy over and over and over no matter what the down and distance is or how ugly it gets. The Saints will make mistakes in run defense assignments. They are best in coverage and they rush the passer extremely well. Cam Jordan and Junior Galette are both double digit sack guys this year. They will feast on Kellen Clemens if you let them. So even if Stacy gets stopped early, you have to stick with him throughout.
RamsHerd: Final score?
Saints Nation: The Saints are playing for keeps right now. They need to secure this 2 seed and they are comfortable in a Dome, but history says the Rams are a tough out for them in St. Louis. Saints 24 Rams 20.
Our thanks to Andrew for his time. You will find my answers to his questions on Saints Nation Blog this weekend. You can, and should follow him on Twitter for gameday interactions: Follow @saintsnationblg