NFL Preview - New Orleans (8-0) at St. Louis (1-7)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Different personnel and changes on the coaching staff have worked out so far in favor of the unbeaten New Orleans Saints. Off to their best start in franchise history, the Saints target their ninth straight win Sunday against the St. Louis Rams at Edward Jones Dome.
Having already matched its win total from all of last season, New Orleans had to battle back last week from a 17-6 first-half deficit to win 30-20 over the NFC South-rival Carolina Panthers at the Louisiana Superdome. The win lifted the Saints to 8-0 for the first time ever and snapped Carolina's seven-game winning streak in the Big Easy. A huge difference for owner/president Tom Benson has been the addition of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose unit has drastically improved from a season ago and is perhaps the top catalyst for the first-half success.
An architect of some of the top defenses in NFL history, Williams has been able to pass on his philosophies to veteran and younger players during his early stint with the Saints. Williams has already witnessed his unit record 24 takeaways this season, two more than all of 2008. New Orleans had three fumble recoveries last week versus Carolina and posted its seventh defensive touchdown this season. The Saints, who share an undefeated record with Indianapolis, also own 16 interceptions in 2009 after recording 15 the year before.
But as the defense earns its praise, the New Orleans offense under head coach Sean Payton has thrived to the tune of a league-best 426.9 passing yards and 37.9 points per game. Early MVP candidate Drew Brees is first in the NFL with a 106.1 passer rating, tied for first with 17 touchdown passes, third with a 68.3 completion percentage and his 292.0 passing yards a contest are good enough for fourth among his peers. Brees and the Saints, however, have turned the ball over 10 times in the last three games and can not afford to put themselves in a hole against a hungry St. Louis team. Brees has been picked off in three straight games for a total of five interceptions, and must take care of the ball to keep the Saints on the right path.
Rams running back Steven Jackson finally found the end zone before the bye week to help his team break into the win column for the first time in 2009. Jackson ran for a season-high 149 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in a 17-10 victory at Detroit on November 1. The win was also monumental for Rams first-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who hopes to give the team back-to-back victories for the first time since mid-October last season.
In order to top last year's pitiful 2-14 finish, beleaguered St. Louis has to do something it has been struggling to do all season, and that's play defense. Known for his defensive prowess, Spagnuolo's decrepit stop unit has been under the tutelage and microscope of Ken Flajole. Flajole's defense played well before the bye week, but the Lions aren't exactly the best measuring stick for success. For a team that's 6-34 over the previous three seasons, it's no wonder the Rams are last in the NFL in scoring, 29th in points allowed, last in third-down defense and near the bottom in yards given up (373.4).
Surrendering nearly 400 yards a game, including 238.6 yards through the air, does not bode well for St. Louis' chances of a major upset Sunday. Stranger things have happened at this level, unfortunately there will be no David vs. Goliath results in this semi-tantalizing matchup between NFC inhabitants. That's what the Rams should expect with deficiencies on the defensive line and secondary. The same holds true for many spots on offense, including quarterback Marc Bulger, who has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes this season (4 INT, 3 TD). St. Louis will play its next three games at home after playing five of its first eight as the guest. It has dropped eight in a row as the host and hasn't won at Edward Jones Dome since a 34-14 win over Dallas on October 19 last year.
The Rams hold a 38-29 lead in the all-time series with New Orleans, and have won their last two head-to-head meetings with the Saints. St. Louis was a 37-29 road winner in its last meeting against New Orleans in 2007, and took a 28-17 decision when the Saints last visited the Edward Jones Dome in 2005. New Orleans' most recent win in the series was a 28-25 overtime triumph in the Gateway City in 2004. The Rams and Saints met twice a season when both were part of the NFC West from 1970 through 2001.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the playoffs, with the Saints earning a 31-28 home triumph in a 2000 NFC First- Round Playoff.
Payton is 0-1 against the Rams as a head coach, while Spagnuolo will be meeting both Payton and New Orleans for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Brees (2,336 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT) has helped the Saints average an NFL-best 37.9 points and 426.9 yards per game this season. It's a huge contrast from the Rams, who are averaging 9.6 points and 288 yards per contest. Brees and company will be the third straight unbeaten opponent to march into the Edward Jones Dome, and hope to come out on top like Minnesota and Indianapolis did prior. The Saints had a hiccup in the offense early last week against Carolina before a second-half surge, highlighted by the defense, propelled them to an 8-0 mark. Brees threw for 300-plus yards for the second straight week and for the fifth time in eight contests by completing 24-of-35 passes for 330 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Marques Colston (37 receptions, 6 TD) and Devery Henderson (26 receptions, 1 TD) are New Orleans' speedsters, while Colston is Brees' all-around main target. Surprisingly, Jeremy Shockey (34 receptions) and Robert Meachem (13 receptions) each have three TD grabs, proving that everyone is contributing to this high-powered offense. The offensive line has allowed 12 sacks this season, but Brees has been victimized eight times over the last three games.
If the Rams can miraculously stop Brees and the high-powered New Orleans pass attack, then maybe they'll have a chance for an upset. But on second thought St. Louis will be lucky if they're not trailing by two scores after the first 15 minutes of play. The Rams are giving up 238.6 passing yards a game, while Brees can throw for that in one half. St. Louis corners Ron Bartell (40 tackles) and Jonathan Wade (15 tackles) don't even possess an interception between the two and have the luxury of being the main focal points on slowing down the Saints' aerial attack. Safety James Butler (17 tackles) leads the secondary with a pair of interceptions, while free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (53 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is second on the team in tackles. Atogwe has recorded six or more tackles in six of eight games this season, and is fourth in the NFL since 2007 with 14 interceptions. Hoping to disrupt Brees' timing will be Rams defensive end Leonard Little (17 tackles), who leads the team with five sacks and is on target for his fifth 10-sack season. He is tied with Kevin Greene for the most 10-sack seasons in team history with four. End James Hall (21 tackles) is second on the team with three sacks.
Pierre Thomas (455 yards, 5 TD) is shooting for his second 100-yard rushing game of the season and hasn't achieved the feat since Week 3. Thomas, who rushed for a career-high 625 yards last season, has been the most productive in the backfield, but Mike Bell (409 yards, 2 TD) leads the Saints with 94 carries to Thomas' 83. Bell is a bigger back than Thomas, but both should expect productive results against a St. Louis run defense rated near the bottom of the league. The Rams currently rank 27th in rushing defense, allowing 134.8 yards per game. New Orleans hopes the two backs, as well as former top draft pick Reggie Bush, can establish the ground attack early to keep St. Louis on its heels and avoid being one dimensional.
Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis (56 tackles) is tied with Butler for the team lead with a pair of interceptions, and has really caught on during his first season in the NFL. Laurinaitis, who has two picks in the past four games, will be focusing his attention on Thomas, Bush and Bell this week. He had seven stops and a pass defensed in the win over Detroit. Outside linebackers Paris Lenon (19 tackles) and David Vobora (17 tackles) combined for eight stops against the Lions, but will be even more conscious of their surrounding with New Orleans in town. Lenon is questionable for this week's game with a balky back. The Rams have struggled with lack of depth and talent on the defensive front, with mediocre tackles Clifton Ryan (21 tackles, sack) and LaJuan Ramsey (12 tackles) plugging the gaps. Along with Little, second- year end Chris Long (27 tackles, sack) hopes to get a shot at disturbing Brees' rhythm.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bulger (956 yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) hasn't thrown for more than 213 yards in a game this season and may never regain his passing form from a few years ago. Bulger hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in two straight weeks either, and was intercepted once in the win over Detroit. The West Virginia product has compiled a 68.2 passer rating and has completed 55.9 percent of his passes. If he wants to get into a passing race with Brees, Bulger needs better production from his receivers. On a brighter note for Bulger, he has thrown for 660 yards and three touchdowns in two starts versus New Orleans. He has never thrown an interception in 82 attempts during his brief stint against the Saints. Second- year wideout Donnie Avery (22 receptions, 2 TD) leads the Rams in receiving yards and has scored twice in his previous four games. Keenan Burton is tops on the team with 25 catches, while tight end Daniel Fells (8 receptions) has a team-high three TD receptions in 2009.
Lowly Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme passed for just 201 yards last week versus the Saints, but didn't throw an interception. Bulger has been just as bad and will be hoping for similar results and a better job by the defense for any shot at an upset. New Orleans has been giving teams around the league the impression that it's one of the best at takeaways. Safety Darren Sharper (35 tackles) has made a legitimate case for that as evidenced by his team-high seven interceptions. He is tied with Buffalo's Jairus Byrd for the NFL lead and has 11 career interception returns for touchdown, including three this season. Sharper can match Hall of Famer Rod Woodson for the most in league history with one more. Young cornerbacks Tracy Porter (41 tackles, 3 INT) and Jabari Greer (38 tackles, 2 INT), and safety Roman Harper (58 tackles, 1 sack) are a tough group to pass on. Harper leads the team in tackles, while Greer is questionable Sunday with a groin injury.
Jackson is making a case for the Pro Bowl and is tied with Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for first in the NFC with 98.0 yards per game and 784 total yards on the ground. Jackson has only one touchdown run to show for it and got that in the win over Detroit. Jackson has carried the ball 20 or more times on five separate occasions this season and has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark on four separate occasions. Unfortunately Jackson's efforts haven't translated into points, which is why the Rams are last with 9.8 points per game. The ground game will try to flourish once again behind the bruising Jackson, who is averaging 141.5 rushing yards over the last two games and an NFL-best 125 scrimmage yards per contest since the 2006 campaign. He owes some credit to new center Jason Brown and rookie tackle Jason Smith for another productive year, and is 216 yards shy of his fifth straight 1,000-yard season. Jackson is also on track for a career-high in rushing yards, which would be the highest total by a Rams running back since 1986, when Eric Dickerson had 1,821 yards.
Saints defensive end Will Smith (23 tackles, 1 INT) has transformed into the new Pat Swilling of the defense. Swilling, of course, was a stud back in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the Saints with his quickness around the edges and ability to run down ball carriers. The same holds true for Smith, who owns a team-best 6.5 sacks this season. Charles Grant (21 tackles, 4 sacks) plays on the opposite side of Smith, and will be out for Bulger's head. Smith came away with a pair of sacks against Carolina. Tackle Anthony Hargrove (24 tackles, 3 sacks) is third on the team in sacks and will team up with tackle Remi Ayodele (11 tackles, sack) to clog up the lanes, making life tough on the backs and congesting passing lanes for Bulger. Hargrove was just named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for recording two fumble recoveries, a fumble- return for a touchdown, a forced fumble and three tackles against Carolina. Jonathan Vilma (54 tackles, sack) leads a trio of talented linebackers, including Scott Shanle (45 tackles, 2 INTs).
The Rams don't have many options fantasy wise for obvious reasons, but Jackson is a must-start in every league. It's unfortunate for Jackson not to have more attention since he's stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of football destinations. Avery is due for a breakout game, while kicker Josh Brown deserves some credit for being able to battle through a tumultuous season.
New Orleans has nearly double of what St. Louis has for fantasy owners. Starting with Brees, the Saints will roll out three talented running backs in Thomas, Bell and Bush, while Colston, Henderson, Shockey and the defense have earned a starting nod on a weekly basis. It may seem as if they're too many targets for Brees to aim for this week, but somebody has to get the ball for the top offense in the league. Kicker John Carney is a solid choice as well.
The Rams are hoping the NFL Gods will be looking down upon them when they try and stop a nagging eight-game slide at home Sunday afternoon. The Gods may be watching, but they'll be seeing Brees light up the Edward Jones Dome as if the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in town. Brees walked a tightrope last week in the come-from-behind win over Carolina and must not let the Rams hang around in this one. He has enjoyed success against his fellow NFC foes, passing for 2,413 yards with 22 TDs, five interceptions and a 121.9 rating in his last seven matchups versus the conference. The Saints' defense can make this an easy day by keeping Jackson grounded and forcing Bulger to beat them with his arm, something they know would be nearly impossible after the way St. Louis has been moving the football through the air. Spagnuolo would enjoy nothing more than to throw a wrench in Payton's gameplan across the field, but there's only so much an inferior coach and an even more subordinate team can do in this lopsided bout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 33, Rams 17
11/12 15:54:07 ET