Possible X-factors in the Saints NFC Championship showdown with the Rams


Credit: Derick E. Hingle

This Sunday’s NFC Championship game features a showdown between unquestionably the two best teams in the NFC, if not the NFL when the 14-3 New Orleans Saints host the 14-3 Los Angeles Rams. The right to go to this year’s Super Bowl is a rematch of a November 4th game, also played in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, when the Saints defeated the Rams 45-35.






There are plenty of superstars on both sides of the ball from both teams, as each team is loaded with All-Pro caliber talent. While the end result of this clash will undoubtedly be decided by the performance of these stars, often a showdown of this magnitude can also be swayed by a player who typically doesn’t grab the top headlines. Here are a couple of New Orleans players who could have a significant say in whether their team will advance to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

MARK INGRAM

Ingram, one of just four players in franchise history to have back to back 1,000 yard rushing seasons, is scheduled to be a free agent at the conclusion of the year. Whether or not Ingram leaves the team that drafted him in the 2010 1st round remains to be seen, but either way, he has had a terrific career in New Orleans. Even though he has often played second fiddle to Alvin Kamara in the Saints running game this season, he had two games with over 100 yards on the ground and finished the season with 645 yards and 6 scores in twelve games. Ingram had 53 yards rushing on nine carries during the Saints divisional playoff win over Philadelphia, and had a couple other runs nullified by penalties. He had just 33 yards on the ground against the Rams, including a fumble, but is a rugged inside runner who can pick up tough yards between the tackles. A solid rushing performance from Ingram would establish offensive balance, and help keep a talented Los Angeles pass rush at bay. He is also an extremely effective pass blocker, with the capability to pick up a free rusher to give more time for Drew Brees in the pocket, as well as being an accomplished receiver out of the backfield that can be a threat in the open field.

ANDRUS PEAT

Peat, the 13th overall pick of the 2015 draft, struggled mightily in last week’s win over the Eagles. He was flagged four times and was generally pushed around by Philadelphia’s interior defenders. After the game, it was revealed that Peat had surgery on his broken right hand during the team’s bye week. When healthy, Peat is a very effective run blocker and solid pass protector from his left guard spot. He is a big bodied blocker with the athleticism to handle most of the league’s better defensive tackles. Peat had an outstanding game when New Orleans defeated the Rams in week nine, helping hold All-Pro defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh to a combined 3 tackles and no sacks. He’s wounded, but Peat will be counted on along with Max Unger and Larry Warford to control Donald and Suh to prevent them from decimating their offensive game plan, as they have done to so many others.

TAYSOM HILL

Hill’s conversion of a fake punt early in the second quarter deep in Saints territory last week revitalized a New Orleans offense that had been struggling. Later in the game, Hill broke open on a deep pass pattern that would have been a sure touchdown, but Drew Brees was a little short on his pass attempt. On the next play, Hill threw a perfect touchdown pass to running back Alvin Kamara that was called back due to a holding penalty on Peat. The Saints offensive hopes of victory lie on Brees’ efficiency, along with the talents of Ingram, Kamara, Michael Thomas, and the offensive line. Hill has been the wild card for coach Sean Payton throughout the 2018 season though and is precisely the type of player that can come up with a single play at a crucial moment to tilt the balance of the game.

TAYLOR STALLWORTH

The Achilles injury to defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is a devastating blow to the Saints defense, but their defensive line is the deepest unit on the team. Tyeler Davison is an accomplished run defender and space eater in the middle, and David Onyemata will be expected to provide adequate interior pass rush. New Orleans signed veteran Tyrunn Walker on Tuesday to provide depth, but it will take multiple players to replace the production and threat to an offense that Rankins provided. Stallworth, an undrafted rookie, will be expected to make an impact as well. The 6’2, 305-lb. Stallworth has appeared in 14 games this season and had a sack, a fumble recovery, and 8 tackles. He has good initial explosion off the snap and can penetrate the offensive backfield quickly. The New Orleans defensive line must win their battles up front, not only to put pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff but contain Todd Gurley and a Los Angeles running game that rolled up 273 rushing yards in last week’s victory over the Cowboys.

ALEX ANZALONE

Anzalone had an outstanding game when these teams met last, totaling five tackles and an acrobatic interception of Goff to set up a late half touchdown. The Saints defense held Gurley to just 68 yards rushing in that game, and a similar type of defensive performance will likely be needed for a New Orleans victory. Demario Davis has had a Pro Bowl-worthy season, and his abilities will be paramount against the Rams potent offense, as will veteran A.J. Klein. Anzalone’s athleticism should be on display this game as well. He has the coverage skills to match up with Gurley out of the backfield or the Los Angeles tight ends, as well as the ability to shoot the gap into the backfield.

ELI APPLE

Somewhat lost due to the terrific performance of cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who had two huge interceptions last week, was the equally important standout play of Apple and the rest of the Saints secondary. Apple and Lattimore were instrumental in shutting down a talented Eagle receiving corps, holding Nick Foles to just 10 of 22 passing for 74 yards after the first two Philadelphia possessions. The Saints secondary will face an equally monumental task of slowing a Rams passing attack that ranked 5th in the NFL and are armed with two 1,200 yard receivers in Robert Woods and former Saint Brandin Cooks. The New Orleans pass defense was significantly upgraded when the team pulled off a mid-October trade for Apple. He teams with Lattimore to give the defense two physical and athletic man to man corners. They will face a big challenge with the crossing routes and down the field abilities of both Cooks and Woods. The Saints run defense may be up to the challenge of at least slowing Gurley, C.J. Anderson, and the Rams running game, even without Rankins. The winner of the battle between Apple/Lattimore vs. Woods/Cooks though may very well determine who advances on to Super Bowl LIII.


Bob Rose is the host of the Bayou Blitz podcast and contributing writer for the Saints at Canal Street Chronicles.

 

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