Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Week Ten Preview: Saints Hobble in to Saint Louis

One of the most regrettable aspects of the realignment of NFL teams for the 2002 season was the removal of the Saint Louis Rams from the New Orleans Saints’ schedule. While the Black and Gold’s big rival are the ATL Dirty Birds, the Saints have a special history with the Rams. The two teams have faced off 67 times since 1967 with only the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco Forty-Niners having played the Saints in more games.
Two of the Saints’ biggest games were against the Rams.
I remember the excitement in the Superdome on New Year’s Eve 1990 when kicker Morten Andersen booted the game winning field goal against the then-Los Angels Rams that earned the Saints a wild-card berth in the playoffs.
I was also there ten years later, when (Saint Louis Rams punt returner) “Hakim dropped the ball” and the Saints won their first ever playoff game.
The two teams had an intense rivalry developing during the Saints’ last days as part of the NFC West, a division they had been a part of since 1970.
The former twice-a-year opponents have only met twice after the Saints and Falcons went to the NFC South. The first match-up was a Rams 28-17 win during the ugly Katrina season when the Saints won a total of three games.
The other was an ugly loss by the Saints during what was an ugly season for Saint Louis.
After dropping their first four games in the Black and Gold’s bid to have a strong follow-up to their relatively successful 2006 season, the Saints had won four in a row to even out their record going into a hapless opponent. At that time, the Rams had dropped eight in a row and the Saints were expected to extend their winning streak to five against a weak team.
Unfortunately for the Saints, things didn’t work out that way.
New Orleans suffered a demoralizing defeat at home and gave the Rams their first win of the season.
If you wanted to know why so many seasoned Saints fans were so nervous going into the Detroit season-opener, it’s because bad teams generally end their losing streaks at the Saints’ expense, with the most infamous example being the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1977, which ended their 26 game skid, a loss that cost Saints coach Hank Stram his job.
Though the Rams were spiraling, it was a game where the winless squad looked like all-stars: quarterback Marc Bulger had a completion rate of 82%, passed for 302 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Running back Steven Jackson ran for 76 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps adding the greatest insult to injury, Jackson also passed for a touchdown and running back Antonio Pittman, who had been drafted and cut by the Saints in 2007, had a 43-yard run against them.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees passed for 272 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The most telling statistic for the Saints failure was in their running game: the Black and Gold had only 11 rushing attempts compared to 34 by the Rams, signifying coach Sean Payton’s obsession with the passing game that for all intents and purposes resulted in scuttling two promising seasons.

Key Differences in 2009
The undefeated Saints will travel to Saint Louis to face an opponent whose record is not much better than the one they faced two years ago. The Rams are 1-7 and have scored a whopping 77 points, the least in the NFL. It should be noted that the Saints have scored more points in their first two games.
Though on the road, Brees will be playing indoors against a team whose defense is ranked 23rd against the pass. Even better for the Saints’ Committee on Rushing and Fleur-de-Leaping, the Rams are 27th at stopping the run.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams have given up the fourth most points in the league with 221.
Where the Rams have done well this season is on the ground, where Jackson has racked up the third most rushing yards in the league. The biggest weakness in the Saints’ defense this season, especially in the last three games, has been giving up big running plays. If Jackson has a game similar to Ricky Williams, Michael Turner and DeAngelo Williams, then Who Dat fans should keep smelling salts and IVs handy this Sunday.
There should be no reason for the team to have to “escape” Saint Louis with a win and I would be disappointed if the Saints don’t pummel the Rams the same way they stomped the Lions in Detroit last season, though the Saints’ injury list going into the game should make Saints fans nervous.

Odds and End

Odds maker Danny Sheridan currently has the Saints as 13.5 favorites. Though they are facing a weak opponent and that the Saints have covered the spread in 6 of 8 games, the Black and Gold have failed to cover in their last two games, though the Atlanta game was somewhat of an aberration since running back Mike Bell failed to hold on to the ball on what should have been a standard clock-run down carry.
The biggest question about the Saints’ ability to cover the spread is related to their most recent injury update: eight players did not practice on Wednesday, most notably defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who is still nursing an injury from the Miami game and is likely out until the New England Monday Night Football game; cornerback Jabari Greer, who injured his groin against Carolina; safety Darren Sharper, who has a knee injury; wide receiver Marques Colston, who has the flu; and wide receiver Lance Moore and center Jonathan Goodwin, who are both dealing with ankle injuries.
If Sharper, Greer and Colston play then I would be tempted to give the points. However, if the two star defensive backs are out, then we might see what we got out of this year’s first round draft pick aside from his play on special teams. If Colston and Moore are out, running back Reggie Bush will have his chance to shine or give more fodder to the legion of haters out there.
The only good news is that linebacker Scott Fujita had a limited practice.
If you’re a betting man, the question is this: are the Saints’ scrubs better than the Rams’ first-string players? Good enough to win straight up? Probably. Good enough to win by two touchdowns? Perhaps, but I felt a hell of a lot more confident taking the 14 points in the Carolina game than I do giving them against the Rams.

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