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Rams look to take next step forward in Week 11 vs. the Saints | Game Preview

It was the loudest environment I'd ever been in.

I remember feeling the decibels in my chest. I can still see Jared Goff temporarily wearing Sean Mannion's helmet, then taping shut the ear holes of his own.

By way of a scheduling quirk, it was our third visit to New Orleans that year. The Rams lost in the preseason, then dropped the undefeated showdown in Week 9. It felt like the whole season was building back to that 2018 NFC Championship Game.

For the first time since the overtime thriller that clinched the conference title, Week 11 takes Los Angeles back to the Big Easy, where the echoes of that deafening day now feel like a distant past.

Both franchises are hurting. And the noise that needs to be blocked out now isn't coming from inside the Superdome.

Rivalry Renewed

At the time, the Saints were as intense a rival as any NFC West foe. They had played in the 2016 and 2017 regular seasons, as well.

Then the Saints made the return trip to the Coliseum seeking vengeance in Week 2 of 2019. Instead, Aaron Donald injured the throwing hand of Drew Brees, the Rams didn't surrender a touchdown, won 27-9, and the two sides haven't seen each other since.

Meanwhile, the roster turnover has been real in both organizations.

No Brees or Sean Payton for the Saints this time around, of course.

No Goff, Andrew Whitworth, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Dante Fowler, John Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Michael Brockers, Greg Zuerlein, Johnny Hekker … not even Nickell Robey-Coleman (couldn't resist) for the Rams.

In fact, I went back and looked at the active roster from that day in January 20, 2019. Only six Rams who played in the NFC Championship are still with the franchise.

Nine Without Ten

There's a seventh Ram who was on injured reserve that day, of course: Cooper Douglas Kupp.

And as we all know, he's on injured reserve again now as they go back to New Orleans.

There is no silver lining to losing Cooper Kupp. It flat out stinks.

I do think there are essential evaluation opportunities to be had this Sunday, however, and hopefully for the duration of the season. And that's why it's so important to get Matthew Stafford back in the huddle.

In all likelihood, the Rams 2023 offense again will be predicated on the connection between Stafford and Kupp. But it can't be as overwhelmingly reliant on the Super Bowl MVP as it was this fall.

So take a scuffling offense, subtract a third of its productivity, and what's left?

The right to audition to play a role in a deeper and more capable supporting cast moving forward.

The rapport with Allen Robinson II that characterized training camp hasn't translated to Sundays – perhaps it can be restored.

Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek, Brandon Powell, Tutu Atwell, Lance McCutcheon, Brycen Hopkins, maybe even Jacob Harris – it's go time.

By helping the Rams win games in what's left of 2022, they can prove to Stafford, McVay, and the organization that more targets should be allotted in 2023.

"We got a committee of guys that really need to step up and they're taking this thing very seriously to come and do that," said offensive coordinator Liam Coen.

Fightin' Words

A similar dynamic could play out in the backfield with rookie Kyren Williams.

"I have a can't be denied mentality," the former Notre Dame running back said on Rams Revealed. "The couple runs that I did have this past weekend, my whole mentality was I'm going to run you over. Just so you all know. I'm not playing."

The Rams need more plays like that, and not just from the 22-year-old Williams. When I asked him for a moment that exemplifies how the Rams need to play in New Orleans and in the back half of this schedule, Williams highlighted Tyler Higbee's 25-yard reception against the Cardinals.

"He broke tackles. He made four or five yards after contact, and he got up electrified," the fifth-round pick said of the veteran tight end. "I feel like Higs, he brings that every day to practice to the game to the weight room to recovery. He's one person that I look at and I try to follow."

Not That Injured

The last thing I wanted to be confronted with this week? How healthy the Rams are.

That's not a typo – though it was a show-stopper when I first saw this illustration ↴

There are multiple ways to measure injury impact, and this may not be the best among them. I'd be the first to argue that the utter disarray on the Rams offensive line is outsized in terms of its impact, in a league-wide context.

But in the same breath, if you watched Hard Knocks, wasn't it dismaying to be reminded that Arizona just beat L.A. while down four starting offensive lineman (and with their backup quarterback)? HBO documented how the Cardinals spent the whole week stressing about how to neutralize Aaron Donald with a first-time starter at guard, only to execute their plan nearly to perfection.

By the way, among those franchises more depleted by injury than the Rams? The Saints. And every remaining opponent on the schedule, save for the Packers and Chiefs.

Critical Moments

As dire as it feels right now, and as far off the pace as the Rams have fallen, we can point to a few plays during the current three-game losing streak that could have led to different outcomes.

Against the 49ers, how about Christian McCaffrey's fumble that bounced right into Ray-Ray McCloud's lap. Or the fourth quarter Higbee drop on a wide-open crosser.

In Tampa Bay, potential interceptions of Brady by Terrell Lewis, Troy Hill, and Jalen Ramsey. Or perhaps a better play to pick up the one first down they needed to clinch the win on third and five.

And last week, Rondale Moore's fourth down reception over the top of David Long Jr. for 26 yards that led to a touchdown and a 14-point deficit.

The lack of depth in certain roles; failure to rise to the occasion when the game is on the line; the inability to overcome a bad bounce or decision.

"That's a big reason why we are where we are," head coach Sean McVay said this week of those shortcomings. "With a lot of the guys that are playing right now, they've played well enough, now how do we really make sure all 11 play together and really just go play fast and free and let the chips fall where they may."

If I had to summarize the 2022 Los Angeles Rams through nine games? This is a team with very little margin for error, making far too many errors.

It would be refreshing to see a few break L.A.'s way – or better yet, to see the Rams seize those moments – for the first time in a long time.

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