A lot of things had to go right for the Rams to beat the Saints, but first and foremost, they had to build a lead. Everything about the Rams' offensive and defensive gameplans, from their versatility in playcalling and formations to their aggressive pass rush, works better with a lead than when playing from behind.
Of course, Steven Jackson and the offense had to do their part, and they did, but the job of not falling behind against the potent New Orleans offense fell to the defense. And there were three critical performances that deserve praise. This is the first of three posts on the subject.
Spotlight: Laurinaitis and the linebackers' physical play
We have heard a lot of talk about "gap discipline" when it comes to diagnosing what's wrong with the Rams' interior defense, and there have been plenty of examples of players getting caught out of position. This has been especially true on pass rushing downs when Ken Flajole dials up a linebacker blitz, and watches in horror as the play turns into a delayed rush or a screen. One hole and there's no tackler within ten yards of the player.
That has been a core problem for the Rams since week 1, when Michael Vick's escapability turned busted pass plays into signficant gains on the ground. But sometimes, fixing it just comes down to being more physical than the other guy.
Witness this first quarter run play by the Saints, which will go to halfback Chris Ivory.
Up to this point, watching the position of left tackle Jermon Bushrod (74) had been a reliable indicator of the play to come. Hand in the rubber dirt: run play. Two-point stance: pass. And the Rams hadn't strayed from their base defense. However, this time they try to cross up the Rams, just as the Cowboys did all last week. Coincidentally, Flajole picks this exact moment to try an all-out pass rush.
The stage is set for disaster. Eight Rams defenders are sucked up in the line of scrimmage, and left guard Carl Nicks (77) is pulling to the right to clear a path for Ivory -- right through James Laurinaitis' spot. The other three Rams defenders are chasing their receivers down the sidelines. There are no crossing routes on the play, leaving a wide open middle and a sure-fire twenty to thirty yard gain.
But here's where the determination to make a one-on-one play and beat your man makes the difference. Laurinaitis gets underneath Nicks and diverts him to the right, simultaneously bouncing himself backwards and planting to make a play.
Laurinaitis wraps up Ivory from behind and drags him down for a five-yard gain. On second and twelve, that's a defensive success, forcing a third and long. But compared to the bloodletting at the hands of Demarco Murray the week before, this is nothing short of a triumph.
Laurinaitis finished the day with ten solo tackles, a sack, and a pass deflection deep downfield against Saints super-weapon Jimmy Graham. And his counterparts Chamberlain and Kehl played very well in limited duty as well.
One week after giving up almost 300 yards rushing, the Rams throttled the Saints three-headed running attack, holding them to 56 yards (2.8 per carry average) and turning New Orleans into a one-dimensional team.
Of course, being the Saints, that was still a pretty damn good dimension. More on that in the next piece.