Keys to the Game: New Orleans

Posted Oct 28, 2011

1. A Strong Brees

While Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been given most of the credit and Aaron Rodgers has emerged, there might not be a more consistently prolific quarterback in the league than New Orleans’ Drew Brees.

Two years after he nearly shattered Dan Marino’s mark for passing yards in a season, Brees is again on pace to make a run at the record.

Through seven games, Brees has thrown for 2,477 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions for a rating of 104.6.

Brees has the ability to see things and know where he’s going with the ball before the snap and can also make plays with his legs if protection breaks down.

“He is one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “The guy never gives up on a play. He’s one of those quarterbacks that can go through all five of his progressions. He can check out of plays and check down to his dangerous backs coming out of the backfield.”

To slow Brees down, the Rams have to find ways to create pressure without going to the blitz too often. Brees has been sacked 13 times this season and he can hang on to the ball too long as he goes through progressions.

2. Basketball Jones

Once a talented basketball prospect at a football school, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has made the conversion to football in a big, big way.

Despite playing just one season of football for Miami in 2009, Graham was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft. His transition has been almost seamless as he pieced together a solid rookie season in which his role expanded each week.

This year, Graham has put it all together as he’s used his 6’6, 260 pound frame and basketball skills to become one of the toughest players to defend in the entire NFL.

“Jimmy Graham is just an upstart athlete, very athletic,” linebacker Bryan Kehl said. “I have played the Saints the last three years and he’s a good player, very athletic and poses a lot of threats.”

Graham has posted 45 catches for 674 yards and five touchdowns in the first seven games and is on pace to break multiple tight end receiving marks this season.

With a calf injury to Brady Poppinga likely to keep him out this week, Kehl could be one of the guys asked to help keep Graham in check, along with linebacker Chris Chamberlain and even the Rams safeties and corners.

There’s not necessarily any one magic way to cover Graham but the Rams must find ways to mix coverages and help to ensure Graham doesn’t go for a big day.

3. Daunting Darren

Many times in the NFL, the word “unique” is thrown around to describe a player and what he can do on the field. But often that word is used too loosely.

In the case of Saints running back/returner/receiver/dynamo Darren Sproles, there are few words more appropriate.

The electric Sproles can hurt teams in many ways and now that he’s in a New Orleans offense that is using him in a variety of ways, his game has gone to another level.

“Yeah, just watching him on film the guy is definitely special just with his speed and quickness and agility,” Chamberlain said. “He can make you miss, break tackles and he’s definitely a guy they look to get mismatches with. We’ll have to keep an eye on him and try to get him bottled up because he’s definitely a dangerous guy.”

Sproles doesn’t carry the ball a ton but when he does, he gets it in position to succeed. He’s run for 289 yards on 39 carries (an average of 7.4 yards per rush) with a pair of touchdowns.

But it’s in the receiving game where Sproles is most dangerous. In fact, he’s made it extremely difficult for the Saints coaching staff to take him off the field as he’s tied with Graham for the team lead in catches (45) with 329 receiving yards and a pair of scores.

Sproles is also dangerous in the return game, averaging 26.9 yards per kick return and a 10.1 yard punt return average with a 72-yard touchdown.

The Rams must know where Sproles is at all times and get him to the ground as quick as possible because if he gets the ball in space, he’s as dangerous as they come.

4. The Mad Scientist

The New Orleans defense isn’t predicated on star power so much as the way the talent fits into the schemes of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Williams comes with a long history of devising exotic blitz schemes that take advantage of holes in the opponent’s offense.

Preferring to come from the strong side, Williams loves to his corners and safeties to attack opposing quarterbacks and come away with sacks.

This week, it seems unlikely the Rams will have Sam Bradford back to start at quarterback, leaving the job in the hands of backup A.J. Feeley once again.

“They’re a good defensive team,” Bradford said. “They’re going to bring…they’re not scared to bring a lot of pressure. They pressure from all over the place, so I think it’s one of those things if we can get it identified and get it picked up there’s a lot of one-on-one match-ups in the back end that we can possibly take advantage of. But I think the big key for us going against that defense is recognizing pressure and making sure that we have the right protection in place to pick it up.”

It’ll be the job of whoever is at quarterback to do what he can to get the Saints to tip their hand before the snap and know where to go with the ball once it’s snapped.

Otherwise, it could be another long day at the office for the Rams offense.

5. Control the Clock

When playing an offense as potent as the Saints, the best defense can be a good offense. More specifically, a strong, ball control offense that wins the time of possession battle and limits the opportunities for the opposing offense.

The Rams attempted to do just that last week against the Cowboys and had success with it in the early parts of the game, which is how they were able to keep it close.

But when Dallas pulled away later in the contest, the time of possession pendulum swung sharply in the other direction.

This week, the Rams will need running back Steven Jackson to have success running the ball and for the passing game to keep the chains moving and the offense on the field.

“I think that’s important,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “Certainly when you play a team that can score a bunch of points in a hurry, if you can possess the ball…that’s going to be important again this week.”