Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

In a game that lived up to expectations, two of the NFC's best teams cascaded big plays all over each other until 80 points were on the board and the Rams had merely 35 of them. Let's start by talking about where Los Angeles was merely very good on offense.

The biggest issue on paper that the Rams faced heading into this game was New Orleans' run defense. The Saints came into Sunday with DVOA's No. 2-ranked rush defense, at -28.0%. The Giants in Week 5 were the only team to put a positive run defense DVOA on New Orleans' ledger, at 1.8%, after running 15 times for 64 yards. The next best result for an opposing offense was -15.0%.

Todd Gurley's stats for this game actually came out pretty OK, 13 carries for 68 yards, with the Rams adding 24 more yards via Jared Goff scrambles, backup backs, and wideout end arounds. Los Angeles' DVOA for their run game in this one was 23.8% ... but their VOA (a.k.a. not defense-adjusted) was just 4.4%. That gap explains a lot about the numbers we'll show you in the DVOA section. The Rams were able to execute a functional running game, but it was nothing like what they'd been doing in every other game they played this year. Los Angeles came into the game with a 13.0% rushing DVOA on the season, good for third in the NFL.

Because most of those yards came on just a few carries by Gurley, nearly every time the team ran him, they wound up in some unfavorable down-and-distance scenarios. The Rams went just 3-of-8 on third downs. Now, to point out how much of a nitpick this is, the Rams didn't even have a third down until the second quarter -- but when they got there, it was usually third-and-long. They averaged a third-and-7.6 for the game. As explosive as Los Angeles is, even they can't overcome that deficit every time.

The second quarter was the undoing for most of the game, and in that quarter the Rams had four possessions that looked like this:

  • Handed a short field by a Mark Ingram fumble, went three-and-out and scored zero points after Johnny Hekker got spotted just short of a first down on a fake field goal .
  • Stalled out in New Orleans territory after a second-and-10 Gurley screen was sniffed out, forcing a third-and-14. Missed the field goal.
  • Goff immediately intercepted.
  • Got the ball with 26 seconds left in the half, drove 52 yards, but lost 15 of them to an unnecessary roughness call on some post-play shoving, forcing a second-and-25 and ultimately a long field goal.

The Rams were excellent when they were able to throw deep, especially off play-action, but they had merely an 18.4% DVOA on short passes in this one. To put that in perspective, the Dolphins managed a 21.5% DVOA on short passes this week, despite converting only five first downs. The Saints broke up a bunch of passes in tight coverage over the middle, and they swarmed Gurley.

In the end, these are the kinds of nits you pick when both teams bring their best game. New Orleans' run defense is real, and they were able to hold the Rams to merely 35 points by seizing the game in the second quarter.

Where the Game Swung

Hey kids, it's that second quarter we just talked about! As always, these are using EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance figures (GWC).

Quarter Time Play GWC Before GWC After Change
2 14:02 Mark Ingram fumble 53.1% 36.4% -16.7%
2 13:14 Johnny Hekker's run 43.7% 51.2% +7.5%
2 7:39 Brees to Tre'Quan Smith TD 58.9% 67.3% +8.4%
2 3:35 Missed Greg Zuerlein field goal 69.6% 78.9% +9.3%
4 9:48 Goff's two-point attempt to Gerald Everett 80.5% 65.2% -15.3%
4 7:59 Brees to Michael Thomas, converting third-and-10 57.4% 69.7% +12.3%
4 3:52 Brees to Michael Thomas for 72-yard touchdown 77.0% 99.3% +22.3%

If you want an EdjSports deep dive, they really did not like Los Angeles' decision to punt with 4:58 left in the game.

By the DVOA

And speaking of how the game lived up to expectations...

LAR 34.3% 21.0% 3.4% 16.7%
NO 38.2% 11.2% 0.8% 27.9%
LAR 38.4% 38.0% 3.4% 3.7%
NO 40.3% 36.9% 0.8% 4.2%

Two offenses that played really well, and one defense that looked a bit better than the other after adjusting for expectations.

Hotwiring the Rams' Star-Laden Defense

When a team goes into the sort of win-now mode that the Rams have this season, the challenge is not only integrating new players into new roles, but also making sure they are schematic fits. With the team's focus on pass-rushers, that has been understandable. Integrating Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler isn't hard -- ask them to rush the passer and win one-on-one next to Aaron Donald. Sure, the Rams still lack a true edge force, but Samson Ebukam had provided some heat with 17.5 hurries (per SIS, subscription required) and a couple of sacks coming into Week 9. Donald led the NFL in hurries through Week 9. Suh was in the top 15. Even though they shored things up with Fowler, the Rams came into Week 9 with the No. 1 defensive pressure rate in the NFL, hassling the passer on nearly 40 percent of their dropbacks (subscription required).

It should be noted that this does not necessarily mean that the Rams played well in this particular game. Drew Brees wasn't sacked at all, and rarely ran into pressure. Donald alone accounted for all four quarterback hits.

Instead, the issue for Los Angeles has been coverage. The major issues for the Rams have come from this swap of players:

IN: Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Cory Littleton

OUT: Trumaine Johnson, Kayvon Webster, Alec Ogletree

Talib played three games before being placed on IR, which has forced many snaps for backups Troy Hill and Sam Shields. Marcus Peters, meanwhile, has been an enigma-and-a-half for the Rams.

Peters was an interesting fit coming over from Kansas City specifically because he's not a press-man specialist. In fact, he was better known for his off-man coverage with the Chiefs. Raw talent was expected to make up for that -- and Peters did show fairly well in small sample sizes of man coverage in each of the last few years -- but instead the fit with the Rams has been a disaster. Coming into this game, Peters' 2017 and 2018 stats looked like this:

Player Year Team Games Games
Targets Yd/Pass Rank Success
Rank PYD Rank YAC Rank
Marcus Peters 2017 KC 14 14 77 6.6 33 53% 50 14.0 17 1.6 25
Marcus Peters 2018 LAR 8 8 35 11.1 54 43% 47 10.2 47 2.1 34

So ... slight declines across the board. Peters memorably pick-sixed Oakland in Week 1, but has otherwise been responsible for a lot of the struggle.

He was flagged twice early against the Saints. And on the biggest play of the game, Michael Thomas' dialed up home run ball, Peters was turning his face at the line of scrimmage before getting burned.

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Here's another one where Peters simply couldn't deal with Michael Thomas inside.

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Now, this is the best of the best. Brees and Michael Thomas in the middle of the field would make a fool out of many NFL corners. But, simply put, a lot of Los Angeles' focus with an eye towards the playoffs has to be on fixing Peters. He has clearly not adjusted to his new responsibilities yet (or he's playing hurt).

Another area where the Rams have been destroyed this year is against the play-action pass. After allowing 6.7 yards per pass against play-action in 2017, the Rams had allowed a league-worst 10.2 yards per play-action pass in 2018 coming into Week 9 (subscription required). Here's how that played out for the Rams on the touchdown to Benjamin Watson in the second quarter:

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Motion puts John Johnson and Littleton on Watson's side of the field. Johnson reads Watson as blocking on the snap and goes to engage him. However, when Watson fades to the end zone, neither Littleton nor Johnson are able to recover from the initial read to pick him up. Easy walk-in score.

The Rams defense still has the potential to be quite good if they get their ducks in a row -- disruption is production, and they have that in spades -- but the Saints were able to expose their issues on the big stage on Sunday, and time is running out to fix their coverage problems.


16 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2018, 3:29pm

15 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

Okay, I'll take that challenge.

"With Talib gone, the Rams won't win another game all year."

"Now that Talib is gone, McVay's roster-building is shown to have been a disaster, and it's likely he won't last the year in the building."

"Aqib Talib's injury has caused such discontent in Los Angeles that the Rams will be forced out of the city and back to St. Louis."

Humph! Doesn't seem that hard at all!

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

How does LA's missed field goal and missed fake field goal reflect better Special Teams performance than 6-6 PATs and 1-1FG by the Saints? 21 yards worth of kickoff returns beyond the 25 is worth more than -6 points?

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

What do peters charting stats look like before and after his injury? I certainly expected him to miss more time than he did so wouldnt suprise me at all if he was playing hurt.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

As a Saints fan I was hoping this article would show how the Saints played a great game and knocked off the last unbeaten team.

instead, and in line with rest of the mainstream media it seems, it was more a case of "how the Rams lost" rather than how the Saints won:

- no praise for the Saints O-line keeping the Rams at bay, other than a backhanded compliment saying that Brees was never sacked
- no real mention of the Saints defense playing much better in key moments or in their half of the field
- and not a single mention of Alvin Kamara; you know, the guy who scored 3 TD's in the first half and who the Rams had trouble containing all game.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

Even treating the Saints winning at home as any sort of unexpected result is a bit of a slight. Given the way the Saints have played from Week 2 onwards, and their history over the past few years, why wouldn't you expect them to win at home, regardless of who their opponent was?

Saints going to NE, KC, LA and winning - yes, I could see that being viewed as a bit of a surprise. NE, KC, LA coming to NO and the Saints winning - shouldn't that be what we expect from this Saints team?

I suppose that's easier for me to say now that the win over LA is in the bag, and the FitzMagic game is in the rearview mirror.

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

Yes, my comments were directed to the universe at large (or at least the odds makers), who were the source of my purported slight: treating the Saints winning at home as an unexpected result.

And since my comments were made after the fact, that's very easy for me to say. Lots of smart people presumably put their money on the opposite result.

14 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

The Saints defense was overrun. They gave up 35 points, which included a missed field goal, and a failed 4th down conversion attempt that was not really failed. Of course one would have expected the Rams to run over the Saints defense, so this isn't really a criticism, other than to say that your perception of the Saints defense playing well in key moments is almost certainly just randomess combined with comfirmation bias from looking at the final score line.

16 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

So forcing the Rams to attempt a long FG (which they missed) wouldn't be a victory for the defense? Or forcing a 3 and out and then a 4 and out to finish the game when the Rams had to score to have any chance of winning, didn't happen at key moments?

If the Saints defense is so bad, how come the Rams offense couldn't overrun them when the game was on the line? Maybe because the Saints defense stopped them?

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Saints over Rams

It doesn't really stand for anything -- it's just a shortened version of "pass yards" -- but it's the average air yardage of passes with this cornerback in coverage. We've been switching to the more universally used ADOT (average depth of target), but sometimes old habits die hard.