Can the Saints defense make enough plays against the high-octane Rams offense to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LIII?"The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams face off this afternoon in the Mercedes Benz Superdome for the right to be the NFC representative in Super Bowl LIII. The Saints have one of the league's most balanced offense Womens Marcus Davenport Jersey , but a productive offense is nothing new for this franchise since the hiring of coach Sean Payton in 2006. What hasn't been as consistent with the Saints during the Payton era has been great defense. His teams in 2006, '09, '10, '13, and last year were all very good on the defensive end, and not coincidentally those seasons resulted in a postseason berth. The 2018-19 squad is arguably the most complete defensive team that the Saints have had since Payton's arrival. New Orleans ranked 14th in total defense, allowing 349 yards and 22.1 points per game. This defense became a highly disruptive unit over the last half of the season though, and held 11 opponents to 20 points or less. The Saints defense has often taken control of games as they've progressed, and have given up just 3 4th quarter points over the last six games. That second half dominance was on display during the Saints divisional round win over the Philadelphia Eagles last week. After the Eagles gained 151 yards and scored two touchdowns on their opening two drives, New Orleans shut them out and held them to just 99 yards for the rest of the game. They now take on a Los Angeles Rams offense that ranked 2nd in the NFL in both points (32.9/game), and total yardage (421/game). The Rams have scored at least 30 points in twelve games this season, and can beat opponents in a number of ways. They demonstrated exactly that during their 30-22 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys during the division round last week. This NFC title game is a rematch of a November 4th contest between Los Angeles and New Orleans in the Superdome. Despite gaining 483 yards of offense, the Rams lost to the Saints that afternoon in a 45-35 shootout. Let's have a look at how the New Orleans defense may fare in Round Two of this heavyweight battle between the NFC's two best teams. SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. RAMS PASS OFFENSE Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportsThe Saints ranked just 29th against the pass during the regular season, surrendering 269 yards per game. The team had major issues in their defensive backfield over the first month of the season, but an October trade for cornerback Eli Apple gave them a solid cover duo, and the secondary has played solid football since. Apple and Marshon Lattimore have been able to take on the opponent's top wideouts and limit their production enough for the Saints to have success. Fellow cornerback P.J. Williams has played fairly well in predominantly slot coverage since the Apple trade, and safety Vonn Bell has given the defense solid coverage from the slot as well. The team has 12 interceptions on the year, led by two each from Apple, Lattimore, Chris Banjo, and Marcus Williams, but swarm to the ball well in the open field with a penchant for forcing fumbles. The Saints linebackers have been responsible for a number of turnovers in the open field as well, and the unit has been excellent in pass defense at times. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein are precise in their zone drops, and have the athleticism to cover backs or tight ends in man coverage. All three 'backers are outstanding blitzers as well Tre'Quan Smith Jersey White , and have 9 sacks between them, but the majority of the Saints pressure is generated from a deep and talented defensive line. Defensive end Cameron Jordan has a team-leading 12 of the team's 49 sacks, and provides a constant disruption from the edge. Rookie first rounder Marcus Davenport and Alex Okafor have combined for 8.5 sacks, and have produced decent pressure from the other edge to compliment Jordan. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins suffered an Achilles injury during the Saints divisional round victory over Philadelphia a week ago, a devastating loss to the team's interior pressure. Tackle David Onyemata, who had three sacks against Dallas and 4.5 on the year, must step up to provide inside pressure in the absence of Rankins to disrupt a Los Angeles passing game that has struggled at times against physical pass rushes. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY SportsThe Rams averaged 282 yards passing during the regular season, good for 5th in the league. Quarterback Jared Goff had eight 300-yd. passing games this year, on his way to 4,688 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Goff has two 1,000 yard wideouts in Robert Woods and former Saint Brandin Cooks. Woods finished with 86 receptions for 1,219 yards with 6 touchdowns, while Cooks added 80 catches for 1,204 yards and 5 scores. The Los Angeles attack lost a major threat when Cooper Kupp was placed on injured reserve at midseason with a knee injury. Josh Reynolds has stepped into the third receiver spot in Kupp's absence with less production (29 receptions, 402 yards), but does have five touchdowns. Goff also used his tight ends more extensively with Kupp out as well, using them well to work the middle of the field. Gerald Everett (33 catches, 320 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Tyler Higbee (24-292, 2) are big-bodied targets with decent athleticism in the open field. Running back Todd Gurley is a very effective checkdown weapon out of the backfield, catching 59 passes for 580 yards and four scores. Goff has been sacked 33 times this year, and the Los Angeles offensive line has struggled against physical defense, although they held a very good Dallas defense sackless last week. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports~Matchup to Watch: Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple vs. Robert Woods/Brandin Cooks ~The Rams use their top two wideouts in a variety of ways, and they're most effective on crossing routes and bubble screens to utilize their open field skills. Cooks Womens Alvin Kamara Jersey , Woods, and Kupp combined for 16 receptions, 274 yards, and 2 touchdowns against New Orleans in November. Even without Kupp, this duo presents a formidable challenge to any defense, but neither Woods or Cooks do well against physical and athletic defensive backs. Lattimore and Apple both have the athletic ability to run with the Rams receivers, but will need to be physical at the line of scrimmage to prevent a free release. The Saints secondary rebounded from a shaky start against Philadelphia last week, holding Eagles quarterback Nick Foles to just 10 completions in 22 attempts for only 74 yards in the game's final three quarters. SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. RAMS RUN OFFENSE Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesNew Orleans had the NFL's 2nd ranked run defense this season, allowing just 80 yards per game and only 3.6 yards per carry. Only four opponents ran for over 100 yards as a team against the Saints, who didn't allow a single back to rush for even 80 yards against them. The loss of Rankins could affect the team's run defense, but tackles Taylor Stallworth and Tyeler Davison have provided a stout interior wall against the rush all season long. Cam Jordan is perhaps the league's best edge run defender, and both Okafor and Davenport hold up well along the edge. The ability of the defensive line to win the battles up front have allowed Saints linebackers Davis, Klein, and Anzalone to fire through gaps and make plays in the offensive backfield. New Orleans held the Eagles to just 49 yards on the ground last week, and contained a powerful Los Angeles running game during their week nine meeting. Gurley had just 68 yards against New Orleans in that game, one of a number of top backs that the Saints have shut down this season. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Rams running attack was 3rd in the NFL during the regular season, averaging 139 yards per game. Gurley was the league's 3rd leading rusher, finishing with 1,251 yards while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He ran for a league high 17 rushing touchdowns, and the 23 rushing scores that Los Angeles had as a team was second only to the Saints. Gurley was slowed by a knee injury over the final month of the season, but ran for 115 yards and a touchdown in the playoff victory over the Cowboys last week. The Rams signed veteran C.J. Anderson late in the year, who rushed for over 100 yards in each of the final two regular season games, then ran for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns against Dallas. Gurley is one of the most explosive backs in the league, and Anderson provides a bruising between the tackles compliment. Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive line vs. Rams offensive line ~The Rams offensive line brutalized Dallas, paving the way for 273 rushing yards through the Cowboys defense. The Saints must prevent a repeat a performance like that if they want to continue their season, and must do it without Rankins in the middle. New Orleans must also generate pressure on Goff Michael Thomas Saints Jersey , who was not sacked when the teams met in November, forcing him to get rid of the ball before the Rams lethal crossing patterns can develop down the field. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesRams coach Sean McVay comes up with some of the most imaginative game plans in the league. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen must match wits with McVay, and come up with a plan to contain the high-powered Los Angeles offense. The New Orleans defensive backs will likely mix their coverage schemes between an aggressive, physical approach at the line of scrimmage and a softer coverage intent on swarming to the ball after a short gain. Due to the absence of Rankins, Cam Jordan may be moved around in hopes of generating heavy pressure on Goff, and keep the Rams offensive line off balance. The New Orleans defense has done an outstanding job of in-game adjustments all season, and has been an underrated big play unit largely responsible for the team being on the brink of a Super Bowl. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Imageshttps://www.canalstreetchronicles.com/2019/1/17/18182014/new-orleans-vs-los-angeles-matchups-saints-offense-vs-rams-defense New Orleans has an 8-5 postseason record since the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, and have a 6-0 home playoff record. The Saints offense will be challenged to control Rams defensive linemen Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Dante Fowler up front, but will look to establish balance with a formidable offensive line and star weapons Brees, receiver Michael Thomas, along with running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The match up between Thomas and Ram cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib is worthy of pay-per-view, and the Saints look to have a significant mismatch with both Thomas and Kamara against the Los Angeles defense. NFC CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTION:SAINTS 30RAMS 28 After having victory snatched away from them in the NFC championship game, it will soon be back to business for the Saints."Thomas has solidified his place among the top wideouts in the game in just his third season. He had 125 receptions this season, which led the NFL and broke his own Saints franchise record. His 1,405 receiving yards was another franchise record, one of many he owns, as he's already rewritten the team's record book. Thomas is a dominant offensive threat despite the lack of a consistent weapon in the passing game, outside of running back Alvin Kamara, to shift the defensive focus away from him. His contract won't expire until the conclusion of next season, but the Saints would be wise to lock up Thomas, a 2016 2nd round draft pick, to a long term deal as soon as possible, eliminating any chances that he could hit the open market. As one of the best offensive weapons in the league, it will likely take the top wideout salary in the NFL to retain him Marcus Davenport Jersey , probably over 20 million per year. Thomas is already perhaps the best receiver in franchise history though, and has seemed to have just scratched the surface of what looks to be a brilliant career. Retain assistant coach Dennis AllenChuck Cook-USA TODAY SportsAllen, the team's defensive coordinator, drew the ire of some fans for the failure of his pass defense in the final minutes of numerous halves this season, and for the overall struggles of his pass defense. Allen's defenses have transformed into a disruptive unit over the last two seasons however, and are just as responsible for playoff runs as the team's offense. His 2018 unit ranking number 1 against the run for the majority of the season, forced 27 turnovers, and held 11 opponents to 20 points or less during the year. Allen and his defensive staff were often outstanding at making in-game adjustments, and the defense is expected to get better, with the majority of their players having been in the league four years or less. His contract expires at the official start of the league's new year, and despite some interest, Allen was not offered a head coaching position elsewhere. The Saints would be wise to keep the defense's coaching staff intact, maintaining the continuity of an underrated and rapidly improving unit. Re-sign Mark Ingram Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesIngram is the highest profile player among the Saints unrestricted free agents this spring, and certainly the most important. He had a down year in 2018, by his standards, finishing with 645 yards rushing and six touchdowns after being suspended for the first four games. One of just four backs in Saints history to have multiple 1,000 yard rushing seasons, he needs just 89 yards to surpass Deuce McAllister as the team's all-time rushing leader, and his 50 career rushing touchdowns are a franchise record. More importantly, the 29-yr. old Ingram is still near his prime, and is a beloved and well-respected teammate. He combines with Alvin Kamara to give New Orleans the most lethal running back combination in the league. Ingram can bulldoze for the tough yardage inside the tackles, and has the speed to get to the outside or break a big play in the open field. He's a underrated receiver, and is an outstanding pass blocker. Chuck Cook-USA TODAY SportsThe Ingram/Kamara duo has fueled this offense for the last two seasons. They have combined for 5,501 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns in their two seasons together. Although Kamara has shown the ability to be a featured back, the Saints offense is far more effective with the two back attack. Ingram could choose a chance to be a featured back elsewhere in free agency, potentially seeking a salary of over five million per year. New Orleans hopes to keep the eight year veteran at a reasonable cap number Alvin Kamara Jersey , but with the Saints looking at expiring contracts of Michael Thomas, Andrus Peat, Vonn Bell, and David Onyemata in 2020, we shouldn't expect a large contract offer to Ingram from the team. If they can't re-sign Ingram, than the running back position will become one of the bigger needs to fill in either free agency or the draft, along with tight end, safety, and offensive line depth. Quarterback Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesThe Saints traded a 3rd round pick in the upcoming draft last August to obtain Teddy Bridgewater from the New York Jets, strengthening their quarterback depth. Bridgewater, who started a meaningless regular season finale against the Panthers and threw for 118 yards with a touchdown and an interception, will become an unrestricted free agent in March. A late 1st round draft choice by the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, Bridgewater looks to be recovered from a horrific knee injury that nearly ended his career three years ago. The Saints will need to decide quickly whether the he is indeed their intended replacement for Drew Brees whenever he decides to retire. The 26-yr. old Bridgewater is a proven starter for a playoff contender, but may decide to test the free agent market for an immediate starting job. The team faces a 33 million dollar cap hit in the final year of Brees contract, and cannot afford to pay another top quarterback salary. If they lose Bridgewater, then the issue of an heir apparent for the legendary Brees will again need to be addressed. Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesThe Saints aren't in a great salary cap spot, but we've certainly seen general manager Mickey Loomis pull off more with less. Other than Ingram, all of the team's top stars are still under contract. Decisions must be made on important role players like Tyeler Davison, Chris Banjo, Craig Robertson, and Josh LeRibeus though, and they must upgrade roster positions like tight end and others this offseason. The Saints will certainly bring in new talent, as all teams do, but they don't face the roster overhaul that we will see from others throughout the league. What New Orleans will do is fine-tune their team in a continued pursuit of a championship in 2019, as well as set themselves up to be a contender for the foreseeable future with a young and talented roster locked up for the longterm.