Two years ago, AJ Feely and a hangdog Rams team playing for little but pride pulled off one of the great upsets of that year. The victims were the New Orleans Saints, then as now putative contenders for a deep playoff run. That unlikely win created a blueprint for pulling off the Big Upset.
Two years later the Rams did it again, and they did it better.
Kellen Clemens had his best day as a pro, completing 70% of his passes and throwing for two first-half touchdowns. With help from his defense and an aggressive special-teams unit, Clemens and the Rams built a quick 17-0 lead, then extended it to 24-3 by the break.
That cushion prompted Jeff Fisher to turn back the clock in the second half with his trademark run game, in attempt to wear down the game's remaining time. The strategy almost backfired as the Saints offense predictably got back on track, running 48 plays in a madcap second half and getting to the doorstep of making it a one-score game in the fourth quarter. But a one-man goal-line stand by Janoris Jenkins and a big paw from Kendall Langford on a close-quarters field goal attempt by Garrett Hartley effectively closed the game out.
Two years ago, Saints fans had to wonder if they had been cursed. On Sunday, curses had nothing to do with it. Their team was simply overmatched against an opponent that was tougher, smarter and more resilient than anyone expected.
Here's how they did it.
Following the Blueprint
It's easy to be confused by the Rams' Jekyll-and-Hyde act. When this team gets an early lead, they can lean on their run game and their pass rush to overwhelm opponents. But when they fall behind early, they are forced out of those comfort zones and their weaknesses in the passing game and on defending the whole field get rapidly exposed.
So it is paramount, perhaps for the Rams more than any other team in the league, to get that early lead. That they did, despite flaming out on the game's first offensive possession. That, surprisingly, prompted the first key to the Big Upset Blueprint.
1: Get Big Contributions From Unexpected Sources
First, the Rams got contributions from two expected sources: potential Pro Bowlers Johnny Hekker and Robert Quinn. Hekker pinned the Saints inside their own ten yard line with a masterful punt to the sideline that neutralized Darren Sproles. Then Quinn knifed past Saints tackle Charles Brown to force an impatient throw by Drew Brees.
That pass was picked off by the Rams' rookie safety TJ McDonald, who was tasked with single coverage on Jimmy Graham, the Saints' most dangerous weapon. McDonald played to his help from another safety perfectly, slipping inside Graham's route and trailing the play while Rodney McLeod rolled over the top. That put him in perfect position when Brees' errant pass floated his way.
Just a few heartbeats later, secret weapon Cory Harkey was stampeding toward the end zone, tossing tacklers aside like a bull having its way with junior varsity matadors. Quite suddenly, the Rams were up 7-0.
2: Take Away the Opponent's Most Dangerous Weapon
As we discussed with Andrew Juge from Saints Nation, the key to the Saints' offense isn't any one receiver, even one as dynamic as Jimmy Graham. It's Brees himself as the field general.
The Rams systematically removed Brees from his comfort zone with pressures coming from all sides of the defensive front. That pressude shorted out the Saints' attempted response with yet another interception, this one from Trumaine Johnson at the goal line.
3: Be Aggressive in Your Play-calling
The drive that followed was one of Brian Schottenheimer's better as a coordinator here in St Louis.
Working off the obvious run calls, Schottenheimer got creative with a designed read-option QB keeper that befuddled Rob Ryan's defense and started a cascade of mental miscues by the Saints defense. Thirty yards of penalties and a big Zac Stacy run off tackle brought the Rams to the red zone.
A clutch catch by Austin Pettis set up a monstrous pick play by Brian Quick to take out two defenders and free up Lance Kendricks for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Seriously, though. Go back and watch this play, and file that away in the little part of your brain that isn't saying "Brian Quick is a bust." Let that other part of your brain chew on that for a little while and grow a little bigger. Great play.
What happened next, though, is where Jeff Fisher took control of this game.
With a poker face that could have James Bond sweating, Greg Zuerlein pulled up from his normal kickoff routine at the last possible moment to deposit an onside kick perfectly into the waiting hands of Stedman Bailey, precisely ten-point-five yards past the line of scrimmage. Rams ball, and a few short minutes later, a three-score lead.
4: Establish the Run, and Throw Deep From It
The Rams played much of the game in a run-friendly two-tight-end formation, but showed the threat of the deep ball with a downfield attempt to Quick on the next drive. The play was beautifully defended and the drive stopped, but it nonetheless forced the Saints to account for the back third of their defensive territory.
Thus, when two Rams route-runners took off outside the numbers, they brought the ceiling of the Saints defense with them. However, those two runners were Austin Pettis and Isaiah Pead. That left Chris Givens with a lone man — a linebacker, no less — to beat on the underneath route. He did his best Tavon Austin impression with a 31-yard juke and run.
Two plays later, Zac Stacy ran through a line of trash and found 40 yards of open space between him and the end zone, and the rout was officially on.
5: Get Lucky
Luck had the least bit to do with this game, but when everything else is going well, luck tends to fall your way as well. (Lady Luck is no socialist, this much is for sure.) Thus we saw not one but two blocked field goals, both of them kicked from inside the Rams' 20 yard line, and both of them blocked by defensive tackles.
They also continue to benefit from the downfall of the Redskins, who fell to the almost lifeless Atlanta Falcons despite some stat sheet heroics from backup quarterback Kirk Cousins. The difference in the game? Mike Shanahan's misguided decision to go for two on what would have been a game-tying touchdown in the final moments of the fourth quarter. As that lion in winter falls on his sword, the Rams' draft stock soars higher and higher.
In the season's first month, the Rams struggled through ain identity crisis on both sides of the ball. Now with games against Tampa Bay and Seattle left to play, the Rams appear to be figuring themselves out. Just in time for what promises to be a dramatic offseason.