Los Angeles has improved its record to 8-3 with its solid 26-20 victory over New Orleans. The Rams were able to lead the contest essentially from start to finish, using a heavy passing attack against a Saints team that was down its top two cornerbacks due to injury.
With five games to go, the Rams have put themselves in strong position for a playoff run. Here are five takeaways from Sunday's eighth victory of the season.
1) Defense slows down Brees & co.
Though the Saints scored a late touchdown to bring the Rams' margin of victory down to just six points, L.A. significantly slowed down New Orleans' offense on Sunday.
Quarterback Drew Brees finished 22-of-32 passing for 246 yards with a touchdown — and 85 of those yards and the scoring strike came on New Orleans' final possession.
Los Angeles got after Brees early and often, recording back-to-back sacks on the first drive. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald got to the quarterback first, then outside linebacker Robert Quinn got to him on the next play to force a punt.
Overall, the Rams did a nice job of keeping Brees uncomfortable throughout the contest, which was a point of emphasis coming in.
"Brees is a Hall of Famer, no doubt," Quinn said. "So if we let him get going early, we know the type of chaos he can cause for a defense. Like I said, guys just stayed to our game plan. As a pass rusher, we just worked our moves and once we got to him tried to get him down and just make his day a little hectic."
Overall the Rams had three sacks — the third by rookie outside linebacker Samson Ebukam — on Brees in the contest.
2) One blip, but run defense performs well
If there was one area of concern for the defense headed into Sunday's game it was how the team would hold up against New Orleans' two-pronged ground attack. And as it turns out, Los Angeles held up pretty well.
Rookie back Alvin Kamara did his share of significant damage, but most of it on only one play. Late in the first quarter, the Tennessee product took a handoff 74 yards down the right side to pay dirt, evading a number of tacklers on the way.
"We kind of got caught in a defense that we typically weren't expecting to do. At the end of the day we still needed to get him on the ground and we didn't do that," middle linebacker Alec Ogletree said. "He's a great running back in this league and if you don't get him on the ground he can take it to the house from anywhere. We witnessed that today."
But Kamara finished with 87 yards rushing on five carries. And fellow Saints running back Mark Ingram had 31 yards on 11 carries.
Nevertheless, Kamara displayed why he's such a dynamic player with the pass game, making six receptions for 101 yards with a touchdown. In all, he had 11 touches for 188 yards and two touchdowns, making a lot of defenders look silly with his slick running.
"He was everything that we saw on film and a little bit more," Ogletree said. "Definitely a great running back and he's going to be something to deal with in this league for a long time."
3) Rookie wideouts step up
Without the injured Robert Woods — who currently leads the team in both receptions and yards receiving — the Rams knew they'd have to find players to make up for that production. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had four receptions for 82 yards with a touchdown, with quarterback Jared Goff clearly targeting him early. But two rookies had standout performances as well.
Cooper Kupp bounced back from a tough game against the Vikings with eight receptions for 116 yards — setting new career highs in both categories.
"Even right after that game [last week], there was no doubt that he was going to respond in the right way. And even if he did have a couple drops or anything like that, we talk about, 'Those couple plays don't define you,'" McVay said. "I would say [I'm] not surprised at all — just proud of Cooper today. That's kind of what we expected and he did a good job."
Fellow rookie Josh Reynolds made his first start and caught his first touchdown on Sunday, too. The touchdown came on an off-schedule play in the red zone, where Goff actually pointed to where he wanted Reynolds to move to in the back of the end zone.
"Play was definitely not designed to go to me and that's probably one of the last plays I ever thought I would get the ball on," Reynolds said. "So to be able to get a score and touchdown in your first start in a game and then to be able to win that game, it's amazing."
Then Reynolds made a significant 10-yard catch on 3rd-and-9 to move the chains in the second half.
"Those are always big plays to be able to keep a drive going especially when a game is so close like that and we needed that first down, it was awesome," Reynolds said. "Jared made a great throw, the line made great protection and we got it."
If L.A. can continue to get production like that out of its rookie class, it bodes well for the future.
4) Gurley continues to make plays
Running back Todd Gurley once again had over 100 yards from scrimmage — 74 rushing, and 54 receiving — to give him eight such games this season. He's now reached a new single-season career high with 1,344 yards from scrimmage with five games still left to go.
McVay pointed out on Monday that Gurley continues to be a huge asset in the Rams' outlet passing game. Multiple times on Sunday, Gurley caught a pass, made a man — or two, or three — miss, and darted past the sticks for a first down.
"I can't emphasize enough what a great job he's done in the pass game when Jared finds him as a check down and then his ability to seemingly always make the first player miss, get vertical, and create some explosives," McVay said. "I think we're all really starting to see why he's the epitome of a complete back and very, very glad that he's our running back."
When it comes to usage, Gurley was in for 69 of the Rams' 77 offensive snaps — the highest percentage of any non offensive lineman or quarterback. McVay said that with fellow running backs Malcolm Brown and Lance Dunbar sidelined with injuries, it was more important to keep Gurley on the field for pass protection. And that's part of why his number of carries was only 17.
"Yesterday was a very specific approach because Todd is such a special player," McVay said. "I think when you look at Lance Dunbar not being available, we wanted to make sure that Todd was ready for some of those third-down, known-passing situations."
5) Can't downplay special teams impact
Special teams continues to play very well for Los Angeles, from a kicking, punting, and return standpoint.
Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper continues to excel in the return game, taking the opening kickoff 40 yards to set up the offense for a touchdown drive. Then he had a 40-yard punt return later in the game. He's been one of the Rams' most consistent weapons all season, and has recorded a punt return of at least 20 yards in four of Los Angeles' last five games.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein continues to lead the league in points, making four field goals on Sunday from 50, 46, 49, and 26-yards out. Zuerlein did miss a 63-yard field goal at the end of the first half — only his second missed field goal of the season. But that doesn't diminish the strong work he did in that game, also nailing all seven of his kickoffs for touchbacks.
And punter Johnny Hekker did his part, with all three of his punts getting downed inside the 20.
With Zuerlein and Hekker's kicking prowess, the Saints did not start a drive ahead of there own 25-yard line. That played a significant role in keeping the visitors' offense off the board.