Keys to the Game Revisited: New Orleans

Posted Dec 16, 2013

The Key: Establishing the Run

As the Rams’ running game has performed this year, so has the rest of the offensive unit. In the five games in which the Rams have rushed for 120 or more yards, they have averaged 28.8 points. In their other eight games, they’ve been limited to just 18.1 points per contest. For the first time since taking over as the team’s lead back, RB Zac Stacy was held to fewer than 50 yards against Arizona last week, finishing with 25 rushing yards on 14 carries. While New Orleans’ defense ranks sixth overall, they are a relatively pedestrian 16th against the run, and have allowed their opponents 127 and 128 yards, respectively, over the past two weeks.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer emphasized the need to find running room this week at his weekly press conference.

“I think the big thing is teams are gearing up to stop it,” Schottenheimer said. “I think there are some things that we need to do just from an execution standpoint, some of our double teams and stuff. We’ve been getting split a little bit. I think the big thing is just preach the fundamentals, our takeoff, getting guys kind of coming off together, getting our fits together in the run game. There are some things I think that (RB) Zac (Stacy) can do, in terms of pressing the ball, making sure he makes the decision late at the line of scrimmage. Again, teams know they want to try to make us one-dimensional. I think this should be a good week where we can try to get back to running the ball. And again, it’s going to ultimately come down to our execution and our ability to work on some of those finer details.”

The Answer:

The Rams’ running game made a triumphant return a week after being limited against Arizona. Stacy rushed for 133 yards, one yard shy of his career-best, established in Week 5 against Jacksonville. His 106 yards in the first half established a Rams rookie record, and were the most by any Rams player since Steven Jackson rushed for 107 yards in the first half against Atlanta on Dec. 28, 2008.

“We lean on the running game,” QB Kellen Clemens said following Sunday’s game. “That’s been our formula for success since Week 5, and again it goes back to the offensive line and their play. Coach Schottenheimer did a great job of scheming things up, and then Zac is a good back. He’s been good for us since he’s stepped up into that roll, and it was another good game for him tonight.”

The Key: Containing Jimmy Graham

New Orleans possesses no shortage of offensive weapons, particularly in the passing game, but perhaps no player looms larger in the Saints’ offense than Pro Bowl TE Jimmy Graham. With three games yet to play, Graham has caught a team-high 74 passes for 1,046 yards. His 14 touchdown receptions are the most in the NFL. Tasked with containing Graham this week could be LB Alec Ogletree or S T. J. McDonald, if not the combination of both at times.

“He can do it all,” Rams LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar said of Graham. “He’s strong, he’s athletic, he catches the ball at its highest point. He’s dangerous and one of the main reasons they’re successful.”

The Answer: Graham’s offensive output on Sunday was statistically his second-lowest production of the season. The Pro Bowler was nullified for nearly the entirety of the game, and was held without a reception until he made a 12-yard grab with 2:52 remaining in the second quarter. He finished the day with two catches for 25 yards on a day QB Drew Brees completed 39 of 56 attempts for 393 yards. Due largely to a consistent and relentless pass-rush from the Rams’ front four, 17 of Brees’ completions were to running backs. The Saints completed just one pass of 30 yards or more.

The Key: Starting Early

Perhaps no statistic has been more telling regarding the Rams’ success on a given week than their performance in the first half. In each of their five victories this year, the Rams have been either tied or leading at the half. That figure becomes further magnified against New Orleans, who has also relied heavily on starting quickly. The Saints are 0-3 when beginning the second half with a deficit.

The Answer: The Rams could not have designed a more ideal beginning to Sunday’s game. With S T.J. McDonald’s first career interception on the Rams’ first defensive snap, and a touchdown on the ensuing possession, the Rams gained an early 7-0 lead they would never relinquish. The Rams also ended the Saints’ second possession with an interception, the third of the season by CB Trumaine Johnson.

“It was magnificent, just to force two turnovers early,” DE Chris Long said. “That’s kind of what we aim to do every week. That gives us a little momentum. It gives our offense opportunities. That’s the formula. Anytime you can do that against a really good quarterback like that, you’re doing something right.”