For the second consecutive week, the Los Angeles Rams jumped out to a big lead and cruised home to a 30-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints, with a finish that had fans squirming in their seats. And the fidgeting may not stop until the season completely runs its course.
Last Sunday’s road map was eerily similar to L.A.’s victory over the Washington Commanders the week previous. The defense played strong, even smothering at times, until the opposition’s explosive pass plays threatened to take their toll late in the game. The Rams have now given up 55 pass plays of 20+ yards, 29th in the NFL.
Explosive plays allowed on defense through 16 weeks pic.twitter.com/KYAT51Xdt7— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) December 26, 2023
While New Orleans has some problems, they were a good test. A team that can pass or run the ball, is stingy giving up points and/or conversions (both third downs and in the red zone) and is involved in a dogfight for the NFC South top spot. Knocking them off was good win.
Here’s what the defensive drive charts show.
New Orleans started quickly with three successive first downs, all on short underneath passes from quarterback (QB) Derek Carr to wide receiver (WR) Chris Olave. It ended quickly as well. From the Rams 31, running back (RB) Alvin Kamara was strung out on sweep for little gain and linebacker (LB) Ernest Jones broke up a pass with sticky coverage on a short drag pattern. On third down, the Rams blitzed five, both Jones and defensive tackle Kobie Turner broke through, with Jones getting the sack. Rams 0, Saints 0.
Another quick thrust into Rams territory by the Saints. It opened with a couple of short runs sandwiched around a 16 yard pass to WR Olave to midfield. Another short catch by Olave gave New Orleans a first down at the Rams 44. A short run and reception by RB Kamara brought up third down, with a nice open-field tackle by LB Christian Rozeboom to hold the pass to a short gain. The Rams brought six rushers and QB Carr was forced to go quickly underneath, where slot cornerback Quentin Lake blanketed WR Olave and broke up the pass. The Saints went for it on fourth down and like the first drive, DT Turner busted free up the middle and this time, tallied the sack. Rams 7, Saints 0.
The Conductor making sweet music! pic.twitter.com/BAzzhEBGEF— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) December 23, 2023
After an opening completion to WR Olave for 14 yards, New Orleans sandwiched incomplete passes around a holding penalty to bring up third down and twenty yards to go. The second incompletion was a simulated blitz, that frazzled QB Carr to throw it away. On third down, the Saints ran a “cry uncle” draw that went nowhere. Rams 10, Saints 0.
A missed field goal gave New Orleans good starting field position and they took advantage of it. On the first play, LB Jones got pressure on a blitz, but QB Carr hung in and made nice throw over edge (E) Keir Thomas for 20 yards up the sideline to the Rams 43. After DT Aaron Donald stifled a run for loss, WR Rashid Shaheed beat CB Ahkello Witherspoon to the post and Carr hit him in stride for a touchdown. The Rams were in man with single-high safety Jordan Fuller. ‘Spoon acted like he was expecting help, but it appeared that S Fuller was shading towards helping out CB Derion Kendrick on a seam route. Fuller never looked at Shaheed and ‘Spoon, from the get-go he was zoned in on supporting Kendrick down the seam. While it appeared on All22 that LB Rozeboom had gotten enough depth to offer CB Kendrick support, Fuller stayed locked on the seam. Rams 10, Saints 7.
The Saints forced a quick three and a mediocre punt gave them good starting position. They opened the drive with a WR Olave catch for 18 yards to the L.A. side of the field. The Rams turned up the blitz on four straight plays, allowing a short check down catch and then an incompletion, both under tight coverage. WR Olave dropped the third down conversion and on fourth, good pass rush pressure forced QB Carr to throw early and errant. Rams 10, Saints 7.
21 seconds in the half. The Saints saw the Rams in single-high man and took a deep shot up the sideline, It looked like the WR had a step on CB DeCobie Durant, but pass rush pressure forced QB Carr to throw a bit early and way too long. He then kneeled to close out the first half. Rams 17, Saints 7.
After a pair of short runs, QB Carr converts the third down on a 13 yard pass to his tight end. WR Shaheed takes an end around for four and a safety blitz off the corner by John Johnson forces Carr to hurry and misfire. On third down, the Rams are in man coverage, but S Fuller is not sitting back in high position, he is patrolling the seam at mid-depth. Slot CB Lake has good coverage/position on a long crossing route, S Fuller is reading the QB all way and steps in for the interception. Rams 20, Saints 7.
Again the Saints open with a long pass to WR Olave, this one for 28 yards to the L.A. side of the field. They did add another first down to get to the Rams 37, but stalled out. A short run by RB Kamara and two misfires targeting WR Olave, one a drop, brought up fourth down. QB Carr had plenty of time, no blitz, but decided to throw well short of the stick and the Rams rallied to turn the ball over. Rams 27, Saints 7.
A 23 point lead with 12:44 play is a lock, right? Not so fast my friend. New Orleans would not put away their beads and hurricane glasses. QB Carr threw 10 passes on a 12 play, 75 yard drive. No real explosive plays, on one pass to a TE there were some missed tackles that allowed extra yards, just short underneath passes methodically down the field. The touchdown finally came against man coverage, a rub route that gave the tight end a space and angle advantage over S John Johnson. Rams 30, Saint 14.
New Orleans wasn’t partied out yet. They blocked a Rams punt and took over at the L.A. 35. A WR screen went nowhere. On the second play from scrimmage L.A. lined up in man with CB Decobie Durant matched up on a much larger WR, A.T. Perry. The bigger player manhandled Durant as he neared the goal line and made a fine catch for the TD. The Saints went for two to make it a one-possession game. WR Olave got position on CB Witherspoon, getting him to turn his back and quickly broke outside for an easy conversion. Rams 30, Saints 22.
Nothing comes easy
I’m not going to dwell on the woulda, coulda, shoulda things that might have gone wrong when the opposition is within a score and using an onside kick with 3:53 left in the game. Instead, the offense was able to run the ball and the clock out with it.
Shutting down Alvin Kamara really set the tone. In the past few years, the Saints offense has run through him. The dual threat running/receiving back was held to 35 total yards on 14 touches. His career averages, over 100 NFL games and 69 starts, are 100 yards per game on 22 touches.
The Saints were able to muster only 35 yards on the ground, their worst output of the season. Some of that lack of production can be attributed to the Rams jumping out to a big lead and changing the complexion of the offensive game calling, but even when the score was close, the L.A. front line and linebackers were quite impenetrable.
That put the game squarely on Derek Carr. It is not unusual for this edition of the L.A. defense to give up explosive pass plays and lots of easy underneath stuff, so Carr did throw for 319 yards. Even though he was only sacked twice and hit three times, he was flustered by the Rams blitzing pressure into poor decisions and passes, particularly on fourth and third downs. Every game Carr threw 40 or more times, the Saints lost.
The Rams were indeed aggressive with the blitz and played a lot of man-to-man coverage with a single-high safety and created enough of a pass rush for it to hold up. I like the change up. They even often used it in positions where field position and time on the clock would suggest zone. Not complaining, just pointing it out. I like the attacking style and with the zones already in hand, the extra reps could make opposing teams account for it when (or if, I guess) playoffs begin.
Ahkello Witherspoon had a tough day in man coverage. The Saints Chris Olave is a tough draw, but he had ‘Spoon on skates all day. Even if you lay the blame for Rashid Shaheed’s post pattern touch down on safety Jordan Fuller, the cat had blown right past ‘Spoon and had him beat no matter the route. He’s out there on an island for a reason. But it should be reported he’s had a groin issue.
Although fans didn’t get a complete game from the defense and while the late game theatrics from the past two weeks are better explained as part of the explosive play issues rather than some late-game collapse trend, the Rams are 8-7 above .500 for the first time since Week 1.
The Rams defense needs another solid showing, and next week versus the New York Giants would the perfect time for that complete game. Everything from here on in must be played as single elimination.