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Battered Saints vs. Beleaguered Rams: Passing Game Battle

New Orleans comes into Week 11 missing some vital pieces on defense to take on a Rams passing game that's performed below expectations.
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The 3-7 New Orleans Saints take on the 3-6 Los Angeles Rams in the Caesars Superdome this Sunday in a matchup between two disappointing squads. New Orleans came into the year expecting to have one of the NFL's best defenses, yet have played well below their talent level.

 The Saints rank 14th in total defense, giving up an average of 326.4 yards per game. Those aren't bad numbers, but they've forced a 31st ranked seven turnovers and have failed to come up with big plays when it matters most. Their rush defense has taken a more concerning tumble than the pass defense, but that area is starting to be affected by a mounting number of injuries and failures in clutch moments.

 New Orleans takes on a defending world champion L.A. team that has their own concerns offensively. The Rams rank a baffling 31st in total yardage, averaging a paltry 282.6 per outing. Los Angeles has the league's worst running game, by far, but even their trademark passing attack has left experts scratching their heads.

The Rams best chance at saving their floundering playoff hopes lie with that passing game. Can a disappointing New Orleans pass defense inch that postseason door further closed and keep their own flickering chances alive?

Saints Pass Defense

- 24.7 points/game (25th)
- 195.9 passing yards/game (6th)
- 61.7% completion percentage
- 11 touchdowns (7th)
- 2 interceptions (32nd)
- 28 sacks/49 QB hits
- 39.1% 3rd Down Percentage (14th)

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (93). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) is pressured by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata (93). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans registered six sacks of Steelers QB Kenny Pickett and held him below 200 yards passing last week. However, it was also a microcosm of their season. Pickett escaped Saints pressure several times, picked up 51 yards rushing, and extended several drives when key stops were desperately needed.

Twelve-year veteran Cam Jordan leads a talented rotation of defensive ends. Jordan has 5.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, and a team-high 12 pressures. His usual complement on the other side is DE Marcus Davenport, who has a half sack, 2 tackles for loss, and 11 pressures.

However, Davenport will miss a second straight outing with a calf injury after not practicing this week. Saints coach Dennis Allen said on Friday that Jordan will also be out because of an eye injury sustained against Pittsburgh. It's the first game Jordan will miss in his career because of injury, and just the second overall. 

Completing the talented edge rotation is Carl Granderson, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and 2021 first-round choice Payton Turner. The three are capable of creating havoc, but have combined for just 4 sacks, 8 QB hits, and 10 tackles for loss so far. They'll need to step up in a big way without Jordan and Davenport.

The Saints need much better production from an underachieving defensive tackle unit. David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, and Kentavius Street have combined for 5.5 sacks and 11 QB hits, with most coming in the last few weeks.

Those aren't bad numbers, but fail to capture the fact that they've had next to no impact on games this season. Their inability to get consistent interior pressure has allowed opposing quarterbacks to step up away from pressure from the Saints defensive ends.

Jan 20, 2019; Los Angeles Rams tight end Gerald Everett (81) is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 20, 2019; Los Angeles Rams tight end Gerald Everett (81) is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The most consistently positive part of the New Orleans defense this season has been its linebackers. Demario Davis remains one of the NFL's best all-around defenders. Davis leads the team with 6 sacks while adding 9 pressures and a team-high 9 tackles for loss. Not only is Davis a devastating blitzer and run-stopper, but he has the fluid athleticism to cover backs and tight ends man to man all over the field.

Leading tackler Pete Werner will miss the next few weeks with an ankle injury, but fourth-year LB Kaden Elliss had a strong outing against the Steelers. Elliss doesn't have the coverage ability of Davis or even Werner, but is an aggressive downhill defender with good pass rushing skills. Without Werner, the Saints may use disappointing third-year LB Zack Baun on early downs and undrafted rookie Nephi Sewell in passing situations.

Like their defensive ends, the New Orleans corners haven't played poorly but have failed to make game-changing plays. Case in point: the Steelers came into last week's game with the most interceptions thrown in the NFL, but the Saints failed to pick off Pickett despite a handful of chances.

The Saints have surrendered less than 204 yards passing in their last four games and have not allowed a receiver more than 65 yards in their last three. Yet, they've had crucial coverage or tackling breakdowns to allow teams to keep drives alive.

New Orleans will be without elite CB Marshon Lattimore for a sixth straight game. It's a big blow for the defense, but the team still has second-year corner Paulson Adebo, rookie second-round pick Alontae Taylor, and veteran Chris Harris Jr.  Harris has lost a step, but still provides experienced slot coverage.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor (27) breaks up a pass intended for Baltimore Ravens receiver Demarcus Robinson (10). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor (27) breaks up a pass intended for Baltimore Ravens receiver Demarcus Robinson (10). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

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Adebo has had a rocky sophomore campaign. After missing the first two games with an ankle injury, Adebo has allowed over 78% completion percentage and five touchdowns when targeted. His coverage has still often been solid, but he's failed to make plays on contested throws and been the victim of several penalties.

Taylor has been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2022 season. His year got off to a slow start because of injury, but he's flashed glimpses of a bright future. Over the last four games, Taylor has allowed less than 47% completion rate when targeted and has yet to surrender a touchdown throw while breaking up a team-high five passes. He's at his best in man coverage, but his physical style has left him prone to penalties by flag-happy officials.

Unlike the corners, New Orleans safeties have struggled throughout the year. Tyrann Mathieu has the team’s only two interceptions, but has otherwise hurt the team with awful tackling effort and by being a step slow in coverage.

Marcus Maye has been in and out of the lineup because of injury and has largely been a non-factor when he does play. P.J. Williams is back from his own injury and provides versatile depth. However, Justin Evans has had his snaps significantly reduced because of poor play, forcing the Saints to use special teams ace J.T. Gray or liability Daniel Sorensen more than they'd like.

Rams Passing Attack 

-16.4 points per game (29th)
-214.6 passing yards/game (22nd)
-9 touchdowns (25th)
-9 interceptions (25th)
-31 sacks
-41.2% 3rd Down Percentage (14th)

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles QB Matthew Stafford missed last week with a concussion, but has cleared protocol and returned to practice so will likely play on Sunday. Stafford has completed 68.4% of his throws and has one 300-yard outing, but has thrown for under 190 yards in his last two games.

A poor offensive line has left Stafford besieged all season. Rams quarterbacks have been sacked at least 3 times in five contests this year and constantly hurried or hit as they throw. It figures to just get worse with three starters and two primary backups out with injuries this week, along with a putrid running game that's failed to give them balance.

Stafford will be without one of the NFL's best receivers for at least the next few weeks. Wideout Cooper Kupp (75 receptions, 812 yards, 6 touchdowns) is on injured reserve after ankle surgery, robbing L.A. of their most consistent weapon. Kupp has been the linchpin of the Rams attack, but Stafford has other weapons available to him.

Jan 20, 2019; Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (89) makes a catch against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY

Jan 20, 2019; Los Angeles Rams tight end Tyler Higbee (89) makes a catch against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY

Nine-year veteran WR Allen Robinson was a big offseason signing. A physical wideout, Robinson's 29 receptions on 47 targets for 292 yards and two scores has been a minor disappointment. However, he's still a valuable intermediate weapon with five seasons of at least 750 yards yards on his resume'.

Second-year WR Ben Skowronek is a favorite of Stafford in key situations. Skowronek, who has 26 catches for 245 yards, is a big receiver with the speed to burn defenses deep. Van Jefferson is also an excellent possession receiver just three games back from injury that will be a bigger part of the attack.

Small, quick wideouts Brandon Powell and Tutu Atwell could also see bigger roles despite their inconsistencies. They'll also be used on end around runs to try and take advantage of overpursuit by a defense. Rams running backs don't see heavy usage as receivers. Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers have combined for 19 catches and 120 yards. They should see more targets without Kupp, as will rookie RB Kyren Williams, an excellent receiver out of the backfield.

Los Angeles has one of the league's most underrated tight ends in Tyler Higbee. The seventh-year tight end is second on the team in targets (65), catches (44), and receiving yards (385). Higbee and his sure hands and precise routes will be an even bigger part of the L.A. attack over the next few weeks.

What to Expect

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive end Payton Turner (98). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive end Payton Turner (98). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

Rams coach Sean McVay has a scheme heavy with crossing routes that always given Dennis Allen defenses fits. The Saints need to be physical, yet extremely disciplined in their coverage packages. Most importantly, they need to make an immediate tackle after receptions to keep gains at a minimum, something the unit has struggled at all year.

New Orleans defensive backs have to make some plays for their defense, and to help a short-handed offense. Stafford is a gunslinger with the reputation of forcing the ball into coverage, especially under pressure.

The battle between a thinner New Orleans defensive front and battered Rams offensive line will likely be the biggest key to the outcome of this clash. The Saints must be able to get interior pressure, which would also not allow the time for crossing routes to develop.

Doing so would lessen the pressure on a defensive end position without Jordan and Davenport, and also might be the only way that the Saints emerge from this game clinging to hopes in the NFC South. 

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