With the exception of a few big plays by running back Alvin Kamara, the Rams did a tremendous job of not allowing the Saints offense to get going last Sunday. The most impressive part of L.A.’s performance was their execution on 3rd down against one of the best offenses in the league. The Saints converted only 3 of their 13 attempts on 3rd down (23%). Each of those conversions came on 3rd-and-2 or less. The final conversion came on New Orleans’ last drive of the game, when the Rams were merely looking to avoid an easy big-play touchdown in the final 2 minutes and played soft cover-3 on 3rd-and-1 as a result. So what did the Rams do to shut down Drew Brees and the Saints on the money down?
The Rams are a heavy man-coverage defense – this is no secret. However, it’s the way Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips decides to deploy his man coverage that makes life hard for opposing quarterbacks. L.A. doesn’t just line up in straight-forward press-man coverage on every snap. Instead, unlike many NFL defenses, they vary their looks. What a concept! They’ll rotate between man free, 2-man, press man, soft man, brackets in select situations, and other variations. This makes it difficult for the quarterback to identify where exactly the help is coming from, and consequently, the ability to locate the best matchup is diminished.
The below play is a perfect example. This was a 3rd-and-5 for the Saints. As you can see, the Rams were giving a man-coverage look, with one deep safety and linebacker Alec Ogletree threatening an inside rush.
Pre-snap, Brees had to be thinking that he liked his 2-on-2 matchup to the right, with Michael Thomas running a slant and Alvin Kamara running a flat route.
At the snap, though, Ogletree dropped out. He was not rushing. He was actually the help defender to the right side.
Brees initially looked right, towards Thomas’s slant route vs cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
Ogletree’s presence prevented Brees from hitting Thomas, though.
Brees had to come off of Thomas’s route. He then looked left, where Ted Ginn was running a slant from the slot against safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Joyner was playing to his help, the deep safety, and was able to aggressively undercut the slant as a result.
Brees uncharacteristically tried to squeeze the ball in with a late throw over the middle that was nearly intercepted by Joyner.
This play is a perfect example of how mixing disguise with man coverage can create wins for the defense. Brees ended up making a contested throw because the discrepancy between what he saw pre-snap and post-snap disrupted his timing and rhythm. He couldn’t simply pick his best matchup pre-snap and fire away. He ultimately had to scan the entire field and go through multiple options on the defense’s terms. This was something we saw play out all day last Sunday.
As with any defensive approach, however, pass-rush pressure is critical. You wouldn’t say that the Rams completely overwhelmed New Orleans with their pass rush, but they did enough to make Brees uncomfortable early in the game. By generating 2 sacks on the Saints’ first possession, they had Brees playing a little fast for the rest of the afternoon. His normally text-book footwork broke down on several plays, and this hurt his ball placement.
Much of the pressure was generated by Wade Phillips’ scheme itself. Phillips does a great job of using alignment to create advantageous 1-on-1’s for his best pass rushers. One of the huge advantages Phillips has at his disposal, though, is defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald is especially quick for a defensive tackle, making him a mismatch for any guard who has to block him inside. Many teams that lack a defensive tackle with Donald’s athleticism have to go out of their way to manufacture the matchup of a speedy pass rusher on a slower guard. They might do this with 5-man fronts that shift a defensive end inside, for instance, but this is something that can’t be done on every play. Donald gives Phillips that quick interior rush on a down-after-down basis, which can make even the best quarterbacks uneasy.
By now, the word is certainly out on the Rams. They are among the league’s top teams on both sides of the ball, and they currently have the inside track on the NFC West division title. Do not be surprised to see this team in the thick of things come January.