Thursday, December 9, 2010

Week 14 Preview: Saints Host Bighorn Sheep

On Sunday afternoon the New Orleans Saints will be visited from an old rival from the Black and Gold’s days in the NFC West when the Saint Louis Rams come to town.

Though they’re no longer in the same division, the Saints have faced the Rams more than any other team with the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco Forty Niners excepted, having squared off on 68 occasions, with the Rams winning 38 of them.

One of the biggest victories in Saints history came against the Rams in 2000 when the New Orleans franchise won their first ever playoff game. However the Rams avenged that indignity seven years later when they beat the Saints for their first win of the season after dropping seven in a row.

When the two teams met in 2009, the 1-7 Rams came very close to breaking the Saints’ eight game winning streak, but thanks to a Courtney Roby kick return for a touchdown and a last second deep pass incompletion, the Saints slipped out of the Edward Jones Dome with their undefeated record intact.

The Rams team the Saints will play against on Sunday will be a much better team than last year’s.

With the first overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft finding his stride as quarterback, the Rams no longer need to rely on running back Steven Jackson to carry the offense almost solely on his shoulders.

Quarterback Sam Bradford has completed 60% of his passes, throwing for 2,653 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 picks, which aren’t bad numbers for a first year pro and the reason why Bradford is the leading choice for rookie of the year honors.

And while Jackson is no longer the end all, be all for the Rams offense, he still constitutes a large part of it, handling almost all of the rushing duties and currently 15 yards shy of breaking 1000 ground yards this season. The running back is also a receiving threat, ranking third on his team in catches and fifth in receiving yards.

The Rams’ defense has performed adequately, allowing the 9th fewest points in the league per game (19.8) and 14th fewest yards (333), per capita surrendering more in the air (229.5 average- 19th overall) than on the ground (103.5 average- 14th overall).

One area where the Rams’ defense has performed well this season is going after opposing quarterbacks. The Rams sack total (35) is one shy of the NFL lead. The team is also +5 in turnovers.

The Saints’ offense is starting to increasingly resemble its high-powered former selves…though the unbalanced 2008 version in lieu of the 2009 championship edition. The offense remains pass heavy and the running game ranks 25th on the ground with an average of 98.5 yards per game. Hopefully the rushing numbers will pick up with the much-anticipated return of running back Pierre Thomas, who was injured in week 3, to the line-up.

And while the Saints defense has overall been stingy, they’ve given up 27 and 30 points in their last two games against subpar opponents. We’ll see if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has made the necessary adjustments to prevent a repeat.

One area where the defense has seriously lacked compared to last season is in takeaways. The Saints secondary aren’t the ballhawks they were in 2009; the Saints are tied for second to last in the NFL in picks with 7, only one above last place. And though the Saints defense have forced 20 fumbles (3rd in the league), they’ve only recovered 11 of the loose pigskins.

The Saints enter the contest at a healthy peak with a slim injury report and almost all of their starters ready to play; the Rams’ secondary as been battered with injuries, a gapping weakness that Brees can exploit.

Welcome Back Karney

Former Saints fullback Mike Karney will be making a return visit to the Superdome on Sunday. Karney, who was one of the more popular players on the team in his role as running back Deuce McAllister’s “bodyguard”, signed with the Rams when the Saints released him after the team inked New England Patriots fullback Heath Evans.

And the Numbers?

USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan has the Saints as a 9.5 favorite over the Rams. With injuries to Rams secondary and Brees starting to connect on the longball, a blow out is not out of the question. However, the Saints have won their last two games by four points or less. Though those games were on the road, the Saints have played better away from the Superdome than they have inside of it. The Saints have not beaten the Rams by 10 points or more since 1998 and the Black and Gold have a habit of playing to the level of their competition. Also bear in mind that the Rams are playing for their division. I’d take the 9.5 as a reaction to the defense’s inability to close out games as of late.

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