National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Rams-Saints

+ The Rams are highly inconsistent. It’s maddening, really. But when they’ve won games this season, they usually do three things: Generate pressure with their four down linemen, run the ball effectively and play great on special teams. They did all three of those things on Sunday, and it’s no wonder why they handled even a Super Bowl contender like New Orleans. The Rams simply aren’t good enough to win games when only one of the three phases plays well. They aren’t good enough to win on a consistent basis when two of the three phases play well. But when they grab an early lead, unleash their pass rush, run the ball effectively and don’t kill themselves on special teams, there isn’t a team in the league that they can’t beat. The only problem is that, as my cohort Micheal Young said in the postgame show on Sunday, the Rams are “consistently inconsistent.”

+ For my money, Robert Quinn has been the best defensive player in the NFL this season. Drew Brees underthrew Jimmy Graham on his first pass attempt of the game, but Quinn forced the turnover by beating left tackle Charles Brown with an inside move. (It’s hard not to come up lame on a pass when you have a 264-pound defensive end wrapped around your upper body.) Quinn was so good on Sunday that he almost single-handedly ruined the game plan of Sean Payton, who is one of the brightest offensive play-callers in football.

+ The catalyst for this team has, and will continue to be, its defensive line. When the team couldn’t generate pressure in San Francisco or Arizona the past two weeks, the secondary was eaten alive. When the front four gets after the quarterback like it did against Indianapolis, Chicago and New Orleans, the results are predictable for the Rams. But let’s give credit to that much-maligned secondary for a moment. Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson were pushed around by Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald the past two weeks, but they more than held their own against one of the premier passing attacks in the NFL. Johnson flashed good instincts to come off Lance Moore in the flat and drop back into coverage to intercept Brees in the red zone on New Orleans’ second offensive possession of the game. Yes, it was a horrendous decision and throw by Brees, but Johnson was in the right position to make a play because he read the quarterback perfectly. Jenkins, meanwhile, made two textbook plays inside the end zone late in the fourth quarter. Both times he led the receiver to the sidelines (which is a defensive back’s best friend), kept his hands on them without holding, looked back and then made a play on the ball when it was in flight. There were a handful of plays in which Quinn flat-out beat the tackle in front of him for a sack. But there were a handful of times when Brees went through his first, second and third progressions before dumping the ball off to his safety net. The Rams’ secondary had perhaps its best game of the year.

+ Alec Ogletree didn’t intercept any passes, force any fumbles or lead the Rams in tackles. But his greatest contribution can be summed up in this stat: Jimmy Graham, two catches for 25 yards. The Rams did an excellent job of putting hands on Graham either at the line of scrimmage or when he came across the middle. More times than not, Ogletree was the first person that Graham saw when he released off the line of scrimmage, and before he was passed off to a safety. Ogletree has improved every week and, while his run defense still leaves a lot to be desired, he’s quickly emerging as a core piece on this Rams defense.

+ Rodger Saffold continues to be the Rams’ best offensive lineman, but on Sunday, the entire unit played well. Jake Long and Saffold got good push in the running game and kept Kellen Clemens clean, while Joe Barksdale continues to provide above-average play at right tackle. After being brutal a week ago in Arizona, Chris Williams and Tim Barnes played better as well. Zac Stacy doesn’t rush for 133 yards on 28 carries if the offensive line isn’t opening holes, which it did all afternoon.

+ Speaking of Stacy, he’s been so good that he almost makes you forget about the inadequacies of Isaiah Pead and Brian Quick. Almost.

+ Cory Harkey impressed me on his 31-yard touchdown reception live at the Dome. It was a great individual effort, even though he got a lot of help from a lazy New Orleans defense. But he impressed me even more with his run-blocking when I rewatched the game. He and Lance Kendricks serve as an extension of the offensive line, and both were excellent while sealing off blocks on the edge.

+ Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey both put on a clinic while running routes on Sunday. They constantly got to their mark and then showed their numbers to Clemens, who did a nice job buying himself time with his mobility inside and outside of the pocket. Pettis disappeared when Sam Bradford got hurt, but he was a chain-mover vs. the Saints. Bailey also continues to prove that he deserves more opportunities in the passing game.

+ I’d be lying if I said I watched NFL games to study punters. But there can’t be many punters who are having a better season than Johnny Hekker. The first mention in this column was about the defensive line and Quinn’s ability to pressure Brees on the QB’s first pass attempt. But before Quinn dialed up heat on Brees, and before T.J. McDonald intercepted that pass, Hekker pinned New Orleans down at the seven-yard line with his first punt of the game. Because of the position he plays, Hekker hasn’t gotten his due this season. But I’m saying it now: He’s been exceptional.