RAMS // SAINTS OVERVIEW
Rams at Saints kicks off one of the most exciting Championship weekends I can ever remember, with the clear Top Four Teams all reaching the final four, and with a great Super Bowl matchup (and some great Super Bowl storylines) on tap regardless of which teams win this weekend. When the Saints and Rams played earlier this year, the final score was 45-35 (in favor of the Saints) — good for 80 total points. When the Patriots and Chiefs played earlier this year, the final score was 43-40 (in favor of the Patriots) — good for 83 total points. It’s unlikely that either game reaches quite that level again, but we’re in for a fun, points-heavy Championship Sunday, with the decade-plus combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees playing host to the two-year-old combination of Sean McVay and Jared Goff in the first game of the day.
RAMS RUN OFFENSE
Somewhat lost in the storylines of this weekend — which have mostly centered around “old vs young” and “the four highest-scoring offenses in the league” — is the fact that three of the teams playing this weekend ranked in the top eight in the NFL this year in rush play rate, with the Rams, Saints, and Patriots all leaning on the run at an above-average clip. The run (and the plays that the run game sets up) is a huge part of what the Rams and Saints both do, and that was part of what made it difficult for the Rams to get their feet under them in the early portions of this matchup last time around, where the Saints took a 35-14 first-half lead and held up Todd Gurley through the early portions of the game. On the season, the Saints ranked a no-joke third in run defense DVOA and second in yards allowed per carry; no team allowed fewer rushing yards than the Saints, and only one team allowed fewer scrimmage yards to the running back position. Much is being made about the loss of Sheldon Rankins, and that will certainly make it easier for the Rams to run the ball, but the loss of Rankins will primarily hurt from a depth perspective (which will show up the most in the third and fourth quarters), and until that point in the game this should still be considered one of the toughest run game matchups in the league.
The flip side of that, of course, is that the Rams have the best run blocking unit and the most well-designed run game in the NFL. The Rams also run a system that produces running back touchdowns at an unbelievable clip, with Gurley piling up five more red zone rushing touchdowns than any other back in football in spite of missing two games. We should expect the Rams to work toward establishing the run throughout the entirety of this game, as a healthy run game is necessary for their pass game to operate at optimum effectiveness, and we should expect them to rotate Gurley (43 snaps last week) and C.J. Anderson (34 snaps last week) to try to match up fresh legs with the tired legs of the Saints’ defensive line. We should also expect Gurley to soak up his typical four to seven targets (while likely playing a larger share of the snaps than he played last week), giving him some additional paths to upside. Gurley is best considered to have a lower floor than normal, but he does still keep a path open to a big game. Anderson is best considered a yardage-and-touchdown back in a tough matchup — though that was the case last week when he turned 23 carries into 123 yards and a pair of scores.
RAMS PASS OFFENSE
In seven games since losing Cooper Kupp, Jared Goff has two performances with four touchdown passes…plus two with one touchdown pass, and three with zero touchdown passes. He has failed to top even 216 passing yards in five of these seven games…but he has gone for 413 yards and 339 yards in his other two. The Rams have managed to still score 30+ points in five of these seven games (highlighting the fact that “a high-scoring affair” does not necessarily guarantee a golden Goff performance), while Goff has thrown the ball under 30 times in three consecutive games. While the matchup on the ground is difficult for the Rams, look for them to try to squeeze as much value as they can out of that side of their offense, as the Saints will gain an edge if the Rams become one-dimensional.
With that said: 32 to 36 pass attempts is still a comfortable range of production for Goff — and even if we assume a high-end seven looks going to Gurley, this should leave plenty of targets available for the concentrated weaponry of the Rams, with Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks the clear alphas in this attack. Woods has eight or more targets in five of seven games without Kupp, with his spike in slot responsibilities giving a nice boost to his floor, and with his route tree still giving him enough downfield work to be considered an Upside piece. Cooks has remained a lock for six to eight targets every week, with an iffy floor, but with plenty of upside on the downfield looks he sees. While Cooks can never be considered “safe,” the Saints gave up the 10th most pass plays of 20+ yards this year, and Cooks has a couple games this year of double-digit targets — each of which boosts his chances of hitting his ceiling.
Josh Reynolds has seen his targets swing all over the place (since Kupp went down :: 8 // 5 // 7 // 12 // 2 // 7 // 4), and he is best considered a “four to seven looks” piece who only gets a few schemed targets each game — though on a slate this small (especially with the Rams trusting him in the red zone), he’s worth a look in tourneys.
Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett both have a tough matchup against a Saints defense that allowed the fourth fewest yards to the tight end position this year — with Everett the likeliest to break out in this spot, though with neither of these guys a remotely safe bet.
SAINTS RUN OFFENSE
We have spent the whole season in this space talking about how the Rams have the pieces to stop the run when they have to, but how they are bad against the run because their defensive approach is to get after the quarterback and to be comfortable giving up rushing yards between the 20s. Last week, the Rams’ run defense showed up in a big way against Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys — essentially daring Dak Prescott to beat them — but there is a strong argument to be made that the Rams will not want to “force Brees to beat them” this week, and will instead return to their standard style of play.
Regardless of what the Rams do in this department, this game sets up well for Alvin Kamara. If the Rams play their standard style, they will present a run defense that ranked 32nd in yards allowed per carry; and if the Rams instead try to tighten up against the run and “force Brees to beat them,” this pass-heavy approach from New Orleans would lead to plenty of action for Kamara. It is worth noting that last week, with the season on the line, the Saints played Kamara on 51 out of 74 snaps (while Mark Ingram played 29 snaps) — and as long as this game stays close, another 65% to 70% snap rate for Kamara should be expected. Last week, this was enough for Kamara to pile up 16 carries and four catches — the fourth time in his last five games he touched the ball 17+ times. Kamara has zero games above 23 touches since Ingram returned (with high-water marks of 23 // 21 // 20 across 12 games in this stretch), but he’ll have a shot at upside in a game in which he should be able to push toward the higher end of this range.
Ingram should also be involved, but he has topped 13 carries only twice (both blowout wins) and has only two games north of two catches (in each of those games, he had three); Ingram will ultimately need a multi-touchdown game in order to really become useful.
SAINTS PASS OFFENSE
When these teams last played, Michael Thomas saw 15 targets (one of only four games of double-digit looks since Ingram returned), torching the Rams for 211 yards and a touchdown. In that game, the Rams used Marcus Peters on Thomas (a matchup that Sean Payton famously said after the game the Saints “loved”), and while Peters has been on the hunt for payback since that week, it seems likely that L.A. will try to avoid the Thomas-vs-Peters matchup as much as they can. Thomas is one of the best technicians in the NFL, while Peters is a big-time playmaker with iffy coverage skills. Aqib Talib was on the sidelines the last time these teams played, and it appears likely the Rams will try to match up Talib on Thomas as much as they can this time around. None of this is to say Thomas “should not be expected to produce”; as always, he has a high target floor as one of the core pieces of this high-powered attack — and he runs over 30% of his routes out of the slot, where Talib rarely travels. But this is a tougher spot than that Week 9 game makes it appear, as the matchup will likely be different most plays this time around. Thomas will especially benefit if this game turns into a shootout, as this will elevate his target count and give him an opportunity to become a big-play threat instead of just being a short-area tactician.
If the Rams do indeed shift Talib over to Thomas, this would create plenty of Ted Ginn on Peters. Last week, we expected the Saints to try to get Ginn involved — and the Saints obliged from the very first play, on which Brees underthrew Ginn on what would have been a long touchdown to open the game. While Ginn came away with only 44 yards on three catches, his seven targets were encouraging. Pump fakes and double moves to take advantage of Peters’ aggressiveness will provide some opportunities for Ginn to hit deep. The downfield nature of his role keeps his floor low, but the upside is tangible on what should be another six to eight target game (the range in which he has landed in all five of his healthy games this year).
As noted weekly: touchdown opportunities will also have a chance to pop up on this team for Keith Kirkwood, Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill, Tre’Quan Smith, Taysom Hill, etc., but none of these guys see enough looks to post legitimate upside even when they score. Behind Kamara, Ingram, Thomas, and Ginn, this offense is purely “guessing and hoping for a miracle.”
The Rams’ offense will face a tough test this week against a Saints unit that has the pieces to make them one-dimensional (where they become far less effective), while the potential for another split workload this week makes Gurley less of a slam-dunk than he typically is. He’s in the decent floor, high ceiling conversation, while Anderson lands in the “scary floor, solid ceiling” department.
If the Rams are forced to become a more pass-heavy unit, this will likely spell the end of their season, but it will also spell more DFS points for their pass catchers as targets pile up. I like Woods this week as a floor/ceiling piece and Cooks as a ceiling piece, while Reynolds (and to a lesser extent, Everett and even Higbee) can be considered as a salary saver with legitimate upside. If the Rams are forced to pass more than normal, Reynolds will likely see a tangible boost in production. As for Goff: he’s clearly behind Mahomes on paper, but he’s certainly in the conversation alongside Brees and Brady, as the Rams are going to need him in this spot in order to have a shot — especially near the goal line. If golden Goff shows up this weekend, he could put a dent into this slate.
On the Saints’ side, Kamara should be locked into around 17 to 20 touches; Ingram should be locked into 12 to 15; Thomas should see eight to 10 targets (with upside for more if this game turns into a shootout); and Ginn should see six to eight looks. Kamara carries the most all-around floor and ceiling, followed by Thomas, then Ingram, then Ginn — though Ginn is attractive for his upside at his price. With price (and positional scarcity) factored in, I like Kamara the most of the bunch, followed by Ginn (followed by Thomas, then Ingram), but all four are (obviously) very much in play in a slate this small. The same goes for Drew Brees, who does not have the same on-paper touchdown upside as Mahomes in the evening, but who can certainly still piece together a box score masterpiece if this game turns into a pass-leaning shootout.