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Saints Rammed in St. Louis, 27-16

The New Orleans Saints fell victim to early turnovers and a ferocious pass rush in a road game on Sunday. Much like previous outings, that formula proved to be the undoing of the Black and Gold, as they lost 27-16 to the St. Louis Rams.


With the loss, the Saints fell to 10-4 and wasted an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth. That puts all of the hopes of the faithful on next week's encounter in Carolina.


While it would be nice for Saints fans to fast-forward to next week's division clash, however, the loss to the Rams was full of too many flaws to completely ignore. Losing to the league-best Seattle Seahawks at their home fortress is one thing, but dropping a meaningful game to a Rams team with a losing record in their partially-filled dome is another occasion for alarm altogether.


Unfortunately, much like the Seattle game, elements of this loss don't bode well for the Saints as they head into the playoffs.


"There were not a lot of things today that were encouraging, to be honest with you," Saints coach Sean Payton said.


While surrendering turnovers and big plays might have gone a long way toward losing the game for the Saints, the biggest problems for the team going forward could be in pass protection and the kicking game.


With a pair of star edge rushers in Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Rams have a pass rush that would be the envy of many teams. But the offensive line's inability to even slightly neutralize the pressure on QB Drew Brees severely limited the Saints' offense.


Brees was sacked four times, but even that ugly stat belies the true amount of disruption that the Rams' defensive line generated. Left Tackle Charles Brown was having such a tough time with Quinn that he was benched in the third quarter.


"I saw enough, period," Payton said. "It was enough penalties, pressures, sacks. It was enough. At some point you can’t just keep watching it."


But the woes didn't end at the line of scrimmage. Even the field goal kicker couldn't make good on a couple of opportunities. Garrett Hartley missed two crucial kicks at the end of both halves, which would have given some hope to an offense that was showing signs of life in each case.


At the end of the second quarter, a Hartley kick was deflected by ex-LSU standout Michael Brockers to deny the Saints a score going into the locker room even after they put together a long drive.


Hartley shanked another try for three in the fourth quarter, just as a desperate comeback appeared to have hope following a recovered onside kick.


"We can’t line up and kick a field goal on two different occasions," Payton said. "Those aren’t good signs, especially here in December.”


The game will go down as one of the classic examples that impressive Brees stats don't amount to much without points. The QB threw for 393 yards, and registered completions on 39-of-56 attempts. But the two missed field goals, an interception in the end zone and a sack-fumble will stand out much more vividly on the stat sheet.


Brees started the game in a hole by throwing an interception on the Saints' first play from scrimmage to T.J. McDonald, which quickly led to a Rams touchdown on a long Cory Harkey run that seemed to have a Marshawn Lynch level of missed tackles.


"You want to talk about waking the whole place up -- that did it," Brees said.


On the next drive, the Saints drove to the St. Louis 10-yard-line, but Brees once again saw a pass to Graham picked off to quash the drive. This time, Trumaine Johnson stepped in front of a pass to the star tight end, when Graham was blanketed by three hovering defenders.


"We’re down there with an opportunity to get points, no need to try and force it," Brees said. "So that one’s on me."


The Rams responded with a drive down the field that benefitted from a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties from Saints' defensive captains Malcolm Jenkins and Curtis Lofton, and ended with a touchdown. Rams Coach Jeff Fisher then twisted the knife with an onside kick recovery that appeared to be straight out of the Sean Payton playbook. The ensuing drive ended in a successful 31-yard field goal from Greg Zeurlein, putting the Saints down 17-0 after only 16 minutes of play.


As expected, the Rams' offensive recipe involved a steady diet of the running game and rookie RB Zac Stacy. The Vanderbilt alum ran for 133 yards on 28 carries, while the Rams as a whole tried to run 34 times compared with 20 passing attempts.


"We knew we had to be able to stop the run and we weren’t able to do that early on," Brees said.


St. Louis QB Kellen Clemens threw for 158 yards, but completed passes on many a third down to keep the Black and Gold defense on the field. He also tossed a pair of touchdown passes.


Meanwhile, the Saints were two-of-six in red zone trips on the day, with the successful pair coming in the fourth quarter. To be fair, the problems weren't only with turnovers and the kicking game. A Brees pass to Lance Moore that appeared to result in the Saints' first touchdown was called back as a result of a Charles Brown hold.


"Six times and you come away with 16 points -- that’s not us," Brees said. "That can’t be us if we want to play well and win, and we have to find a way to improve that.”


Payton said the tape from this loss will be "revealing," but this is no time for the Black and Gold to go into crisis mode. Next week's return date in Charlotte with the Carolina Panthers now holds all the keys to the Saints' hopes of winning the division, and gaining the NFC's no. 2 seed in the playoffs.


The Panthers beat the Jets Sunday, meaning the teams will once again have identical records heading into their showdown. Still, despite laying an egg this week, the Black and Gold remain in position to lock up the division with a win at Bank of America Stadium. The Saints rolled over the Panthers in the Dome last week, but without some quick improvements next week could be a different story. 


"We have Carolina who we just played, and we know they are watching this film and they are probably pretty happy about this," Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said.

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