Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s NFC Championship Game will take place in New Orleans as the Saints will face the Los Angeles Rams. Here’s what to watch for:
RAMS’ DEFENSE, WHILE TALENTED, IS INCONSISTENT
While Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favors a 3-4 defense that asks his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it, his unit this season has been mediocre. The Rams’ defense in 2018 ranked 19th overall, 14th against the pass, 23rd against the run.
A few statistics stand out in regards to Los Angeles. Finishing middle of the pack in quarterback takedowns (15th in sacks) is an indicator of their lack of depth with their pass rushers. Even though they employ the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, former All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and the underrated Michael Brockers on their defensive line, the linebacker position is a barren wasteland beyond former safety Mark Barron.
The Rams were also third in interceptions and 26th in passing touchdowns allowed. This speaks to the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. While they both excel in man and zone coverage along with nickel cornerbacks Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman, they – along with safety Lamarcus Joyner – love to take risks and go for interceptions. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t, as being consistently aggressive can sometimes come back to hurt you.
Phillips’ defenses are usually schematically excellent, but his coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations. Looks for the Saints to try and exploit this trend, and also try to use the Rams’ aggressiveness from their defensive linemen against them on draws.
GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO
Ever since Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines nearly 20 years ago, the team didn’t have anything remotely close to fielding a good offense for a long time. That has changed ever since Sean McVay took over last year, and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.
Prior to being hired by the Rams, McVay spent time working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington, and also was on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.
The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays, while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches, and countless tailbacks have had success in it – including the Rams’ Todd Gurley, who is also dangerous in the screen game and on routes to the flats. In front of Gurley are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein. Backup running back C.J. Anderson, a former Bronco and Panther, has also been rejuvenated in Los Angeles.
Passing-wise, the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate. Their passing game also makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts and crossing patterns.
Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, is very good when it comes to the timing and rhythm portion of the passing game. He gets the ball out on time, has good synchronicity with his receivers, is accurate and intelligent. However, when under pressure Goff’s footwork can get a bit sloppy and isn’t always at ease when bodies are flying around him.
The weapons that Goff has at his disposal are wideouts Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, and tight end Tyler Higbee. Cooks is one of the NFL’s best deep threats, Woods has emerged as a very good possession receiver since leaving the Buffalo Bills and Higbee has been relied upon more following the season-ending knee injury to slot extraordinaire Cooper Kupp.
One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties. Look for it to continue on Sunday.
SAINTS’ DEFENSE HAS REBUILT INTO A RESPECTABLE UNIT
Ever since their Super Bowl win in 2009, the Saints’ defense has been in a perpetual rebuilding mode. Save for one season in 2013, New Orleans has ranked at or near the bottom in many categories virtually every season.
In some ways, that’s still true. The Saints finished the regular season just 29th against the pass and recorded only 18 interceptions, but they were also 14th overall, second against the run and tied for fifth in sacks. The two negative statistics may be a result of teams having to accumulate a ton of passing yardage in order to keep up with the Saints’ high-flying offense, but the latter numbers indicate that New Orleans has done a good job so far in accumulating talent in their front-seven.
The ever-improving Cameron Jordan, on the rise gap-stuffer Sheldon Rankins and rookie Marcus Davenport have all contributed to New Orleans’ upper-echelon pass rush and all anchor well against the run. Linebackers Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein are tackling machines.
Dennis Allen, the Saints’ defensive coordinator and former Raiders coach, has a very multiple defensive scheme. He uses a lot of personnel groupings and front-seven alignments, but nowhere is he more versatile than in his postsnap coverage rotations and usage of both man and zone. This fits perfectly with someone like cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has become one of the NFL’s best shutdown defenders. Eli Apple, Kurt Coleman, Vonn Bell, Ken Crawley, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams make up the rest of their secondary.
The last time this two teams played each other in November – a 45-35 Saints win – Allen decided to defend Cooks with Lattimore and Woods with Apple. This resulted in a lot of flood concepts being used against them – mainly post-corner routes with a crossing route underneath. It will be interesting to see if the Saints’ coaching staff can take this concept away from Goff and his cohorts this week.
BREES AND COMPANY STILL EXCELLING IN BIG EASY
Drew Brees is still playing at an elite level, even while in his 18th season and with declining arm strength. His footwork and pocket presence is impeccable, his accuracy is deadly (as evidenced by his holding the NFL record for completion percentage four different times), his experience gives him a leg up against most coverages and is great at influencing pass defenders with his eyes, pump fakes and shoulder rolls.
For the most part, the Saints’ passing game has been built through having big, physical targets who can get open over the middle of the field, especially on deep in, or “dig” routes. Head coach Sean Payton has employed such players before like Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, and he has another such specimen in Michael Thomas. Thomas, the nephew of former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, isn’t just athletically gifted but also possesses strong hands and the knowledge of how to find holes against certain coverages. (The Saints also signed former Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant in an attempt to replicate Thomas, but he suffered a torn Achilles before ever suiting up in black and gold.)
Trying to work the middle of the field helps Brees due to his lack of height, but Payton isn’t adverse against throwing the ball deep either. Tre’Quan Smith and Tommylee Lewis can both get down the field, and Keith Kirkwood is also a red zone threat. Tight end Ben Watson will miss Sunday’s game with appendicitis.
The Saints also like to line up in base personnel with a fullback and tight end split out wide with their top two wideouts in the slot to create mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Look for that to continue on Sunday.
New Orleans doesn’t just like to throw the ball though. Mark Ingram is a powerful runner and the Saints like to use Alvin Kamara with misdirection plays, screens and draws, and lining him up at wide receiver – both out wide and in the slot. His speed, route-running ability and reliable hands make him a threat no matter where he aligns.
The Saints’ offensive line is made up of the athletic Terron Armstead, run-blocking extraordinaire Andrus Peat, maulers Max Unger and Larry Warford and the ascending Ryan Ramczyk. They are one of the best units in football.
Another tactic the Saints love to use is throwing out of run-heavy personnel. According to the MMQB’s Andy Benoit, “No NFC coach uses formations with six offensive linemen more than Sean Payton, who loves to throw from that grouping. Also, its tight ends and running backs often help with chip blocks. This slows those players as they’re getting into their routes, but that’s fine because they can serve as check-down options, and Brees’s eyes don’t reach them until late in the play.”
THIS AND THAT
Several of the Saints’ and Rams’ coaches have either worked with or played for Jon or Jay Gruden, including Payton, McVay, Rams offensive line coach Aaron Kromer (who also worked for Payton in New Orleans), Rams running backs coach Skip Peete, Rams linebackers coach Joe Barry, Rams tight ends coach Shane Waldron, Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor and Saints special teams coach Bradford Banta.
Saints’ senior defensive assistant Peter Giunta was the Rams’ defensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl in 1999.