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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Black & Gold Wednesday: The trouble with St Louis...

Posted By on Wed, Dec 11, 2013 at 1:36 PM


Pictured above: The interior of the Saints' offensive line caves in during a loss to St Louis in 2011. Remember this. It'll be on the exam.

And so the Saints crushed Carolina, exactly how we said they would. Only three games remain in the regular season and the Saints have a full game lead and nearly all relevant tiebreaker advantages over Carolina, so both the NFC South title and probable two seed in the playoffs seem easily within reach.

And they are. Except.

Except there's the pesky problem of the St Louis Rams, the Saints' upcoming opponent, whom the Payton-era franchise has never quite completely figured out.

Let's take a look at the Saints vs the Rams in this era, and then figure out what the Saints' relative struggles against Carolina over the recent past might mean for the rest of this season — and in the playoffs.

The Original Kryptonite

Yesterday, B&G published a brief analysis of what style of defense causes the most problems for the Saints offense. The conclusion we reached is that this style has changed over the years — the Saints' kryptonite, in other words, is different these days.

Let's go way, way, way back to understand what has changed.

In 2006, a week after their famous win over Dallas on Sunday Night Football, the Saints returned to the Superdome and, with the division still technically up for grabs, lost a stinker to Washington, managing just 10 points and 199 net passing yards.

This was a Washington team that finished 5-11 and which lost all but one of its five December games — the exception being, of course, the win against the Saints. There was little reason to think they had any fight, even with the specter of a co-called "letdown" game hanging over the Saints' collective head.

Nevertheless, Washington's defensive line, its tackles most specifically, dominated the Saints' interior line, pushing the pocket back into Drew Brees' face and clogging up all the interior running lanes. As a result, Brees had no time to throw, constantly had pass rushers in his line of vision, and was held without a touchdown. The running game fared no better. Deuce McAllister averaged only 2.7 yards per carry when running behind his big, powerful guards, and the Saints only produced 74 yards as a team despite running the ball 24 times.

The lesson learned was this: To stop the Saints, beat them where they're strongest. Win the matchup over Jahri Evans and everything else would fall into place.

In both 2007 and 2011, St Louis did the same thing. In 2007, former Saint La'Roi Glover and a strong line held off the Saints' offense long enough for the Rams to build an insurmountable lead. In 2011, Rams defensive lineman Chris Long destroyed everything the Saints put in his way and nearly ended Drew Brees' nascent games with a touchdown streak on his own.

In all of the above cases a clearly inferior opponent neutralized the Saints offense by beating it up front, on the line of scrimmage, especially inside.

This year, things have gone a bit differently. Teams with strong defensive lines, like Carolina, have failed to stop the Saints. Teams with great secondaries, on the other hand — Seattle foremost among them — have been more trouble.

It's All About Passer Rating

The defensive statistic that correlates most closely to success is passer rating allowed — basically how efficient opposing quarterbacks are against your defense. Here, the Rams have had quite a bit of trouble, which bodes well for the Saints' chances. They rank 27th, allowing a 97.2 rating. Compare this to the league-leading Seahawks, with their 69.4 rating allowed, to put that number into further context.

If the key to stopping the Saints' offense is a great pass defense, then the Saints should beat the Rams Sunday. And by beating the Rams, the Saints will move ever so close to a division title, a first round playoff bye, and a home playoff contest preceding the NFC Championship Game.

And here's the other thing: On the list of potential NFC playoff teams, four rank among the ten best pass defenses, but the Saints have already beaten three of them — Carolina, Arizona, and San Francisco. Given the fact the Saints would, under the most likely post-Rams victory scenario, be facing one of those three at home, the path to success looks pretty clear.

The problem is the fourth team.

That's Seattle.

We'll cross that Causeway when we get there.

For more on the Saints, New Orleans, and everything in the margins, check out the Black & Gold Review.

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