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Saints Run Defense Must Dominate Downtrodden Rams Run Game

The New Orleans run defense might be the most disappointing aspect of their disappointing season so far. They'll have to reverse that trend against what's been a weak Los Angeles ground game in week 11.
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The 3-7 New Orleans Saints are back at the Caesars Superdome this Sunday when they host the 3-6 Los Angeles Rams. New Orleans has lost their last two and four of the last five games. The Rams have dropped three straight and five of their last six.

One of the reasons for the Saints struggles has been an underachieving defense. They've surrendered 326.4 yards per outing, ranking 14th in the NFL. However, they've caused only seven turnovers, next-to-last in the league, and rank 25th in points allowed.

Perhaps most concerning is the deterioration of a once-stout run defense that had dominated teams for the previous four seasons. 

New Orleans takes on a Los Angeles team that has crumbled under high expectations this season. The defending world champs have struggled in all phases, but rank a shocking 31st in total offense with an average of only 282.7 yards per outing. 

A struggling Rams running game has produced next to nothing, leaving QB Matthew Stafford to be battered thanks to a poor offensive line. New Orleans would look to have a major advantage against Los Angeles runners, but that scenario has played out several times in the opponent’s favor this season.

Saints Run Defense 

- 24.7 points per game (25th)

- 130.5 rushing yards/game (22nd)

- 4.6 per rush (20th)

- 11 rushing touchdowns (19th)

- 47 tackles for loss 

- 39.1% 3rd Down Percentage (14th)

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) is stopped by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) is stopped by New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56). Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

It's one thing to be gashed by the Baltimore Ravens, as the Saints were in week 8. The Ravens are one of the league's best at running the football. New Orleans has also been pushed around by inferior offensive lines from Atlanta, Carolina, Seattle, Arizona, and Pittsburgh, giving up an average of over 170 yards on the ground to those teams. 

Saints defensive tackles have played slightly better in recent weeks, but have mostly been ineffective against offensive lines. David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, and Kentavius Street have gotten little penetration at the point of attack and have done a poor job of closing off running lanes. 

The failure of the tackles to control the point of attack has allowed opponents to navigate inside of the Saints defensive ends. Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport have played reasonably well, but teams have been able to find lanes inside of them to the second level. 

Jordan is second on the team with 8 tackles for loss and continues to be one of the league's better all-around edge defenders. Davenport and fellow ends Payton Turner and Tanoh Kpassagnon have combined for ten tackles for loss. They crash down on backfields well, but often the ball carrier has already hit a hole opened up because of ineffective interior play.

The Saints are further limited by injuries in their front seven. Davenport (calf) missed last week's loss to Pittsburgh but could suit up this weekend. A more damaging blow is an ankle injury to leading tackler, LB Pete Werner, that will keep him out for several games.

On the bright side, LB Kaden Elliss played very well with increased snaps against the Steelers. Elliss doesn't have Werner's range, but is a very physical downhill defender with good burst to the ball. 

New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) tackles Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) as he scrambles. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) tackles Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) as he scrambles. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints also have elite LB Demario Davis, who leads the defense with 9 tackles for loss among 58 total stops. At 33, Davis still has a rare blend of instincts, sideline-to-sideline athleticism, and physicality. Without Werner, the Saints have little quality depth with Zack Baun and Nephi Sewell. 

In years past, New Orleans would drop a safety in the box to stifle the run. It's been an unsuccessful strategy in 2022. Marcus Maye has missed three games with injuries, including last week against Pittsburgh with an abdomen issue worth monitoring in practice this week.

Tyrann Mathieu, the team’s other big-name offseason addition at safety, has been an absolute liability. Mathieu has missed countless tackles this season because of poor effort and positioning. 

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Poor tackling throughout the entire defense has caused a crumbling of a once-vaunted run defense. 

Rams Rushing Attack 

- 16.4 points per game (31st)

- 68 rushing yards/game (32nd)

- 3.2 per rush (31st)

- 7 rushing touchdowns (23rd)

- 41.2% 3rd Down Percentage (14th)

Los Angeles Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. (27) runs the ball against the Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Rams running back Darrell Henderson Jr. (27) runs the ball against the Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles has managed 100 yards on the ground as a team just twice this year. They've been held to under 70 yards by six different opponents in 2022.

The Rams have attempted the fewest running plays (191) in the NFL this season. One-dimensional game plans and awful offensive line play has put extra stress on the team’s passing game and allowed defenses to tee off on Stafford and apply extra coverage on their wideouts. Los Angeles has three offensive line starters and two primary backups on injured reserve for a unit that struggled when healthy. 

Third-year RB Cam Akers led the Rams in rushing as a rookie with 625 yards, showing decisive power and good burst. He missed most of last season with a knee injury, but returned in time for the playoffs and had an impressive postseason stretch.

This year, he's appeared to fall out of favor with the coaches and was even the subject of trade rumors at the deadline. Akers has just 62 carries for 176 yards and only two catches while playing just 30% of the offensive snaps. 

Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers (3) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Trysten Hill (72). Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers (3) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Trysten Hill (72). Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

Four-year RB Darrell Henderson leads the Rams with 274 rushing yards after a career-high 688 in 2021. Henderson doesn't have Akers' power, but runs with decent vision and excellent elusiveness.

Rookie Kyren Williams just returned from injured reserve last week and should see a bigger role. Williams is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and rushed for over 1,000 yards his last two seasons at Notre Dame. 

What to Expect 

Jan 20, 2019; New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) tackles Los Angeles Rams running back C.J. Anderson (35). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 20, 2019; New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport (92) tackles Los Angeles Rams running back C.J. Anderson (35). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

With QB Matthew Stafford returning from a concussion and WR Cooper Kupp on injured reserve, the Rams would be wise to establish a running game. Remember that the Saints have played poorly against backup linemen a few times already this season. 

New Orleans needs to dominate the line of scrimmage and make the Rams one-dimensional by eliminating the run. That might be easier said than done, with the status of Davenport (calf) and Jordan (eye) in some doubt because of injuries.

New Orleans Saints linebackers Kaden Elliss (55) and Demario Davis (56) tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebackers Kaden Elliss (55) and Demario Davis (56) tackle Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints desperately need a big performance from their defensive tackles, something that has yet to happen this season.  If successful, linebackers Davis and Elliss can swarm to the ball, thereby opening up the possibility for big plays. 

New Orleans has underachieved on the defensive side all season. They're still mathematically alive in the NFC South, but are just focused on a win at this point. To get it, they'll have to revert back to the hard-nosed defense that made them contenders over the previous five years. 

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