Updated: 11/26, 7:35 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — After a tough loss against the Vikings last week, the Rams responded well to pull off a 26-20 victory over the NFC South-leading Saints. The win keeps Los Angeles' one-game lead in the NFC West and gives the franchise eight wins for the first time since 2006.
The Rams broke a season-long trend on Sunday, ending the game behind in the turnover margin, but still ahead on the scoreboard. So how did L.A. pull it off? With a defensive performance that kept pressure on quarterback Drew Brees throughout, recording three sacks. The Saints had only 14 first downs, and finished 3-of-13 in third-down efficiency.
"No. 1 offense in the league and I thought our defense did a great job today making them earn tough yards," head coach Sean McVay said. "I think they were 3-for-13 on third downs, guys flew around, we were rushing the passer, [the defense] was pursuing to the football.
"There was a lot of positive things and that was a tough, hard-earned win for us," McVay added.
"I think, as a defense, we played well," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. "I think our secondary did a helluva job covering their receivers which is a great unit, which kept the ball in Drew Brees' hands so we can get to him."
But Los Angeles' offense was also able to sustain drives much better than in last week's game. The unit had only two three-and-outs, with most of its drives containing at least two first downs. That allowed the Rams to finish ahead in time of possession 35:26 to 24:34.
Without leading wide receiver Robert Woods — who was out with a shoulder injury — wideouts Cooper Kupp, Sammy Watkins, and Josh Reynolds all had quality performances. Watkins opened the contest with a 24-yard reception, and had a 31-yard catch as well. Reynolds caught the first touchdown of his career in the second quarter. And Kupp had the best game of his young career, making eight receptions for 116 yards — the first time he's gone over 100 yards in a game. This after what was a tough game fort the rookie last week against Minnesota.
"I didn't treat this week any different than I did other ones," Kupp said. "It's just you can get down on yourself pretty quickly I think when things aren't going your way. Like I said before, when you trust in why you're here and what you're playing for it just motivates you to get back on the horse and prepare. You have to come back out here seven days after the game win or lose, you have to get back out there and pursue a W."
"There's never any doubts with [Kupp]. He's so level-headed and such a hard worker, there's never any doubts no matter what," said quarterback Jared Goff, who finished 28-of-43 passing for 354 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. "You know, I think there's even some that he'd like to have back, that I'd like to have back — I think I missed him on a couple. But, yeah, he played really well today."
For the second week in a row, the Rams scored a touchdown on their opening drive. Returner Pharoh Cooper set the offense up well with a 40-yard return on the kickoff, placing Los Angeles at its own 41. After beginning the possession with his 24-yard catch, Watkins capped it with a five-yard touchdown on a slant.
"I though that was a great way to be able to start it off," McVay said.
The Rams started well defensively, too, with defensive tackle Aaron Donald and outside linebacker Robert Quinn sacking Brees on consecutive plays to end the Saints' first drive.
"Brees is a Hall of Famer, no doubt. So if we let him get going early, we know the type of chaos he can cause for a defense," Quinn 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."
Kicker Greg Zuerlein expanded the Rams' lead to 10-0 with a 50-yard field goal following New Orleans' punt.
But it didn't take long for the Saints to get on the board from there, as running back Alvin Kamara took a handoff 74 yards to pay dirt on the second play of the ensuing drive.
At least in the run game, that accounted for most of Kamara's damage, as he finished with five carries for 87 yards. Fellow New Orleans running back Mark Ingram had 11 carries for 31 yards.
"[Kamara] had a long run in a sub-personnel play," New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said, crediting L.A. defensive coordinator Wade Phillips for keeping the visitors' offense off balance. "We weren't able to throw it enough and take advantage of it, but there wasn't any wholesale adjustment after that run."
After trading a couple punts, Los Angeles used an eight-play, 86-yard drive to go up 17-7. On 2nd-and-11 from the Los Angeles 40, Goff connected with Kupp on a 53-yard pass down the left side to put the home team on the visitors' seven. A play later, Goff pointed to Reynolds, directing him to the quarterback's left, and fired a strike to the back of the end zone for the first touchdown of the rookie wideout's career.
"Yeah, it was a little backyard ball, you know? Just had what's called 'drop eight' — they rushed three and dropped eight [into coverage]. And most of the time when that happens, it's going to be an off-schedule throw," Goff said. "I saw him go over the ball over the middle, saw a linebacker on him with his back turned, and kind of pointed to him, 'Go that way.' And sure enough, he did, and was open."
"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."
The Saints added a 50-yard field goal to cut their deficit to 17-10. And while it looked like L.A. would have a chance to get the lead to 20-10 before halftime, a sack by defensive end Cam Jordan pushed the Rams out of decent field-goal range late in the period.
Still, McVay opted to send Zuerlein out for a 63-yard field-goal attempt. The kick, however, ended up short. Wide receiver Ted Ginn returned it, but punter/holder Johnny Hekker knocked Ginn out of bounds at the New Orleans 25.
"You look at the attempt that we had at the end of the first half, that's a decision that we wouldn't second guess," McVay said. "We'd make that again because I think more times than not, Greg is going to hit that kick."
Los Angeles was only able to tack on three field goals in the second half, but the club's offense was able to sustain drives and take time off the clock. Plus, the defense completely stalled New Orleans' offense in the third quarter, as all three of the visitors' drives in the period ended in punts from their own territory.
Zuerlein connected on a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter to make the score 20-10, then added a 49 yarder to start the fourth, increasing Los Angeles' advantage to 23-10.
New Orleans scored a field goal in response, but one the defense made the Saints earn. On 3rd-and-goal from the four, cornerback Kayvon Webster tackled receiver Michael Thomas for a one-yard gain, forcing the field goal attempt with about 10 minutes left in the contest.
"Huge play. Kayvon, he's a tough player," McVay said. "Michael is a great player — very physical in space. To be able to make that was huge and it really ended up being a four-point play for us."
The Saints had another opportunity after a Rams giveaway. Watkins had a deep ball go off his hand and into the arms of cornerback P.J. Williams down the left side, allowing New Orleans to take over at its own 19. But the defense held the visitors down once again, forcing a punt after a three-and-out.
From there, the Rams used a 13-play, 52-yard drive that included five first downs to drain 5:28 off the clock. Poetically, Zuerlein nailed a 26-yard field goal to give L.A. a 26-13 lead with 2:27 left.
Down 13 with no timeouts, the Saints did score again with a Brees 15-yard touchdown pass to Kamara. But Watkins recovered the ensuing onside kick, and Goff took three knees out of victory formation to seal the Rams' eighth W.
"It was a big win for us. There's a big difference between being 7-4 and 8-3, especially against a team like this. It was a game that [was] not necessarily a must-win, but a game that's going to give use. lot moving forward and a lot of confidence, for sure. Especially coming against a team like the Saints, with all they've been doing this year."
Now at 8-3, the Rams will be back on the road next week for a divisional matchup with the Cardinals.
"I think every win provides an opportunity to gain some confidence, but we've got a confident group. And I think, it sounds monotonous, but the biggest thing is we got to 8-3. Now the challenge is, let's enjoy this, let's come back ready to put this one away tomorrow — look at the good, look at the bad — and then be ready to move forward with a great division opponent coming up when we go to Arizona next week."