The last time the Rams appeared in the Super Bowl, Sean McVay was just 16-years-old – yet a win against the Saints this weekend would see him become the youngest head coach to lead a team in football’s biggest game.
Now 32, McVay has transformed the LA franchise from a mediocre side to one of the NFL’s top four offences and is the envy of every struggling team in the league, all desperate to find their own offensive genius.
Despite his young age, the coach has quickly been recognised for his superb game planning. In fact, no side has yet beaten the Rams twice in a season while McVay has been in charge.
That will be put to the test this weekend when they step out in the inevitably raucous Superdome and take on Sean Payton and Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints.
The last time the two sides faced off, in week nine of the regular season, the Saints defeated the Rams 45-35 in New Orleans.
But, with the return of Aqib Talib from injury and the signing of CJ Anderson, the Rams could well be ready to return to the Super Bowl.
Power and Finesse
Last season, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram were unquestionably the league’s best pair of running backs, both racking up more than 1,000 all-purpose yards.
Fast forward to this year’s post-season and the Rams are heading to the Big Easy with their own power and finesse partnership fresh off the back of lighting up the Cowboys.
There undoubtedly were concerns when Todd Gurley needed time off with injuries and Jared Goff looked like he was going to have to pick the franchise up on his back and carry them forward.
Up stepped Anderson, who declared himself just a ‘fat boy running’ on Twitter after last Saturday’s win, who has an incredible 140-yard average per game for the Rams so far and four touchdowns.
If McVay’s side are to make the Super Bowl, Gurley and Anderson are going to need to capitalise on Sheldon Rankins’ absence and hope their offensive line, the likes of Rob Havenstein and Andrew Whitworth can create the spaces for them both to carve up another defence and control the game.
Talib and Co.
Corner Aqib Talib’s return to action before the end of the campaign was vital for the Rams and he, again, will be a key cog this weekend after Marcus Peters’ disappointing performances without him and Troy Hill’s struggles to replace the former Bronco’s man.
Incredibly, in the weeks Talib started – weeks one to three and 13 to 17 – the Rams defence surrendered the third-best passer rating to opposing quarterbacks in the league, 74.5, and were seventh best in yards given up per reception, 10.4. They also intercepted 12 passes over those eight weeks.
Meanwhile, when the corner back was sidelined, the Rams gave up a 111.6 passer rating, the third worst in the league, and allowed 13.2 yards per reception, with only the Oakland Raiders conceding more in the NFL.
That incredible difference in performances was highlighted most in week nine, against this weekend’s opponents, when Michael Thomas lit the Rams backfield up, hauling in 12 catches for 211 yards and one touchdown, at an average of 17.6 yards per reception.
Wade Phillips will be reliant on Talib leading by example this weekend if they are to limit the impact Thomas can have and hold the Saints to a respectable score.
Goff Under Pressure
The Rams young quarterback has returned a mixed bag this season, launching incredible deep passes some weeks, while capitulating under pressure others.
High-scoring clashes with the Vikings and Chiefs saw some of the best of Goff, throwing five and four touchdowns respectively in those games. However, week 14’s road loss to Matt Nagy’s Bears gave us a taste of some of the worst of Goff, as he dished out four interceptions.
Last Saturday night, aided by excellent blocking, Goff acted more as a game manager, never setting the game alight but always in control of things as Gurley and Anderson pounded the ball down the field.
It will be key for McVay in New Orleans on Sunday to not let his quarterback get into a shoot out with Payton and Drew Brees. The experienced Saints signal caller will inevitably win that battle.
A major concern will be whether he can thrive on the big stage if the Saints eliminate the run game, or will Goff become a rabbit in the headlights – under pressure and throwing out rash passes for Saints defenders to pick off.
The Final Word
If McVay and the Rams are to leave New Orleans with the win and a trip to the Super Bowl, they will have to control the game with the run. Keeping the ball out of Drew Brees’ hand for as long as possible is imperative to limit their scoring chances and prevent the match becoming a shootout.
Brees started last week’s game rusty, throwing an interception on his first pass and then following that up with a three and out. He won’t be the same this weekend.
It will be a tough ask for the Rams to come out on top, New Orleans having won 15 of their last 17 games at home.
But McVay’s confidence to go for it on fourth downs, and his belief in his offensive stars to convert, could be a deciding factor in what will be a game decided by the finest of margins across the field.
This piece has been written for Ninety Nine Yards by guest writer, Dave Bodymore. You can follow Dave on Twitter @davebodymore
Photo credit : Robert Hanashiro, USA Today – Sports