Here we go. One final game to decide which team from the NFC will represent the conference in Super Bowl LIII.
Well, we have to start in Week 9. Back in early November, we met up as two of the NFC’s best. Now we do so again with time passed. What’s different (for better and worse) between the New Orleans Saints of early November 2018 and the Saints of mid-January 2019?
Both sides of the ball will see a few personnel changes.
On offense, the Saints were missing Ted Ginn Jr, but Ginn will be ready to go for the conference championship. On the flip side, veteran TE Benjamin Watson (who had 62 yards and a TD in Week 9) will also miss the conference championship due to Appendicitis. Josh Hill and UDFA Dan Arnold will likely be called on to fill the gap from Watson’s absence.
The Saints offensive line was healthy and firing on all cylinders back in Week 9, and that’s not true this go-round. Andrus Peat is dealing with an injured hand that was just surgically repaired only a couple of weeks ago. Terron Armstead is dealing with a torn pectoral muscle. Max Unger, Jermon Bushrod, and Ryan Ramczyk are all banged up.
On defense, the Saints lost DT Sheldon Rankins to a ruptured Achilles in the divisional round. David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison will now split more time in the rotation at DT in Rankins’s absence. While the Saints lost Rankins since the last meeting with the Rams, first round pick Marcus Davenport will be playing this time after missing the previous contest with a toe injury.
And similarly to the Rams taking a bit of time to get Dante Fowler Jr going on the Rams defense, the Saints also took a bit to get Eli Apple from the Giants flowing on the defensive side of the ball in New Orleans.
Offensively, we all know the deal. If you were defending the Saints’ offense though, how would you attack it? What aspects are there to be beaten?
I would follow Michael Thomas with Aqib Talib. Thomas does not have elite speed, so he uses precise route-running and physicality at the line of scrimmage to get separation. Talib is known for physicality (to say the least) himself, so pressing Thomas at the line with Talib should help throw Thomas off his routes. When the Saints have a banged up offensive line, I would do what I could to make Drew hold the ball as long as possible. Thomas and his precision routes are usually one of Drew’s first reads on a passing play. If you can make him look away from the first option, maybe you can stall just long enough for Aaron Donald the boys to sack Brees and make him uncomfortable.
Drew’s second look (or first, depending on the play) is Alvin Kamara. The Rams are not known for strong play at linebacker, and Sean Payton knows this. Payton will do what he can to get Kamara lined up against a linebacker. I would probably just play in nickel as much as possible and guard Kamara with a cornerback when he’s out wide.
The Rams defense isn’t known to shadow opposing wide receivers, but it wouldn’t shock me to see Wade Phillips do just that against the Saints. The Rams were known to not run the ball out of shotgun entering the playoffs, but that’s exactly what they did against Dallas, and you could tell the Cowboys were not prepared for it. Whether it’s because Talib is shadowing Thomas, or even if it’s just when Talib and Thomas happened to be lined up on the same side of the field, that means putting Marcus Peters on Ted Ginn Jr.
Peters struggles in man coverage, so if a man scheme is called, I would be wary of Ginn trying to double-move Peters into making a bad decision. To counteract that fear, I would likely shade a safety over the top of Peters in man coverage to help minimize that risk.
Shut down Kamara and Thomas, and you shut down the Saints offense - just look what Dallas did. (Granted, the Dallas game was on the road, and that’s not a luxury the Rams will be afforded, but the point remains.) If you can keep Ginn in check too, the Saints offense will have nowhere to go, especially considering Watson and UDFA WR Keith Kirkwood are both slated to miss the game.
On the defensive side, there are bigger questions. What are you most confident in on this side of the ball? What parts of the defense do you want to lean in to in order to win this game?
Had you asked me this last week, I would have told you that I was most confident in the Saints rushing defense. The Saints were #2 against the in 2018, and it was far from a fluke. While many fans and pundits who don’t follow the Saints just assume this was because opposing teams were forced to abandon the run early in games, that’s just not true (aside from a couple of games, including the previous Week 9 game against the Rams). The Saints were also one of the best defenses in rushing yards allowed per attempt - so it’s not like teams were finding success and just choosing to pass instead. No, the Saints defense was forcing opposing teams to just give up on the run.
After losing Sheldon Rankins in the divisional round against the Eagles, I’m definitely more concerned. The Rams have a healthy offensive line (I don’t believe I saw any Rams players on the injury report), and the Saints defensive line is missing its best interior run-stopper.
The Saints lost Rankins early in the game last week (midway through the first quarter), and the Eagles tried - and failed - to run at the void created by Rankins’s exit. Eagles running backs managed only 37 yards on the ground and no TDs in the game. Now, it’s important to note that it is laughable to compare Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles to Todd Gurley (and too CJ Anderson), but the dominance in the run game still can’t be dismissed. Consider this: in the Rams 15 game against the Eagles, those same Eagles running backs rushed against the Rams defense for 106 yards and 3 TDs.
How big is this game for New Orleans? Y’all haven’t gotten to this point since the 2009 season. I don’t know if Anthony Davis even punctures the Saints’ shield on the city compared to say LSU football, but where does this game sit in the general sphere of Nola sports/culture?
I can’t speak for the entire city of New Orleans or the New Orleans fanbase generally. I’m not an LSU fan and I’m indifferent on the Pelicans. That being said, New Orleans is first and foremost the Saints city. If you asked any fans of the Saints who was also a fan of both LSU and the Pelicans if they would be willing to trade a Saints Super Bowl for multiple losing seasons of the latter two, Saints fans would likely make that trade in a heartbeat.
Of course I’m biased, but I believe there is no professional sports team, in any sport, in any city, more connected to the culture and the people than the New Orleans Saints are to this city. Even when the Saints had back-to-back-to-back 7-9 seasons, the Super Dome was still sold out and the season ticket waiting list was 100,000+ people long. Gone are the days of the paper bag hats. Saints fans aren’t embarrassed to support this team any more; they support their team when it struggles, and they take pride like no other when it wins.
I can tell you anecdotally that I know of multiple instances where after Hurricane Katrina, residents of New Orleans could barely find enough money for the quality of life they were used to pre-Katrina, but they still made it a point to buy Saints season tickets.
You guys win, ok. Easy. Super Bowl and the rest of it. But if you guys lose, what happens? What has to happen personnel-wise? How do you guys respond? And my goodness, do y’all finally get Cowboys fans to stop talking about Sean Payton to the Cowboys one way or the other?
It depends on how we lose. If it’s a blowout or otherwise epic collapse, I wouldn’t be surprised to see massive overhaul on the coaching staff. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Saints assistant coaches start to fill some of the remaining head coaching gigs across the NFL - I’m sure someone like one time knew a guy who lived next door to Sean McVay’s veterinarian, so that should be enough.
Assuming they lose in a respectable way, though, the first question would be, “What happens next for Drew Brees?” Brees has one year left on his contract, and is within striking distance of Peyton Manning’s all-time career passing yardage record. If the Saints lose, and Drew believes the team is close enough to get back and have another crack at it next season, I think he uses this all as motivation to return next year. Personally, I believe this was part of the mentality this past offseason after how the team lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round.
On the other hand, if the Saints could manage to pull off another Lombardi for Drew, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see Brees ride off into the sunset. Even if the Saints lose, Drew could still decide to call it a career and spend more time with his family.
If Drew stays, Payton stays. That’s a lock. If Drew goes, there’s a chance Payton leaves, but it’s unlikely. I’ve heard rumors too of Jerry Jones salivating over the idea of Sean Payton, and everyone knows Sean still loves the Dallas area after coaching under Parcells, but I just don’t see Sean Payton and his ego fitting in well under Jerry Jones’s thumb. Betting money would be Payton stays put regardless, and is there long enough to usher in the era post-Drew Brees, whenever that day may come.
Thanks to Chris for the time.