NFC South: Chris Long

W2W4: Buccaneers at Rams

December, 21, 2013
12/21/13
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Three things to watch for in Sunday’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the St. Louis Rams.

The St. Louis pass rush: Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon is going to face another challenging pass rush, which is led by defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Quinn particularly has been having an outstanding season. He has 15 sacks and seven forced fumbles. Left tackle Donald Penn will be the primary guy responsible for blocking Quinn. But the Bucs need to give Penn a lot of help.

The Tampa Bay running game: The Bucs have been very inconsistent in this area in recent weeks. That needs to change, because Tampa Bay’s offensive philosophy starts with being able to run the ball. The offensive line needs to help running back Bobby Rainey establish the running game early, to help take the pressure off Glennon.

Tampa Bay’s run defense: With Kellen Clemens playing quarterback, St. Louis’ offense depends heavily on the running game and Zac Stacy. Tampa Bay’s run defense ranks No. 15, after ranking No. 1 last season. The Bucs need to bottle up Stacy and challenge Clemens and the passing game to beat them.

Double Coverage: Saints at Rams

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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Drew Brees and Zac StacyGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints are piling up numbers, but Zac Stacy and the Rams may give them trouble.

While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding in the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.

In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.

Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?

Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).

There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing -- neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.

Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?

Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.

As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.

One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?

Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one -- or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).

I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.

Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?

Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.

But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.

While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?

Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage -- bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the five yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.

Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete -- Vaccaro -- who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?

Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day to day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.

Double Coverage: Rams-Falcons

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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Ryan-Long Getty ImagesThe question for the Falcons in Week 2 will be how quarterback Matt Ryan matches up with the punishing Rams pass rush, led by defensive end Chris Long.

Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White drew a lot of attention in the offseason when he compared the Falcons’ offense to “The Greatest Show on Turf."

That was the nickname for the St. Louis Rams in their heyday. Ironically, the Falcons host the modern-day Rams on Sunday. The Falcons didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in a season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, while the Rams won their opener against Arizona.

ESPN’s Nick Wagoner and Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup between St. Louis and Atlanta.

Yasinskas: I still believe the hype about the Atlanta offense, even after the disappointing showing against New Orleans. I think the Falcons simply hit the wrong team at the wrong place and time. The Saints were motivated by a rowdy crowd that was celebrating coach Sean Payton’s return after a season-long suspension. I think we’ll see more of what the Falcons are about when they play in the Georgia Dome. Still, I think the offensive line remains a major concern and could limit quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to get the ball to his playmakers. Nick, the Rams did a nice job of getting pressure against Arizona. How good is this pass rush?

Wagoner: Everything the Rams do on defense is based on the idea of having a strong pass rush. The defensive line, in particular, is the team's greatest strength. It's not just starting ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, either. The Rams have signed three key backups to contract extensions since March and have a group of eight under control through the end of 2014. Long is the mainstay but Quinn has the upside to become one of the two or three best pass rushers in the league. His three sacks and two forced fumbles last week were a big reason for the Rams' season-opening victory. You mentioned concerns about the offensive line. It looked like that group struggled against New Orleans. Exactly how much of a concern is that for Atlanta right now and what are that unit's weakest spots?

Yasinskas: The offensive line is a huge concern. The Falcons released right tackle Tyson Clabo in the offseason and center Todd McClure retired. The Falcons thought they were covered because they easily could move Peter Konz from guard to center and they thought Mike Johnson was ready to be the starting right tackle. Konz will be just fine at center. But Johnson suffered a season-ending injury early in camp and the Falcons have had to turn to second-year pro Lamar Holmes. He's starting next to guard Garrett Reynolds and that leaves the right side of the line as a big question mark. The left side of the line isn't exactly top shelf either, so this line could be the weak spot for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Speaking of weak spots, what's the biggest one for the Rams?

Wagoner: After Week 1 there are multiple options, including persistent penalty problems, inability to convert turnovers into touchdowns and an underwhelming run game. The most glaring issue coming out of that game, though, was the Rams' struggles in pass coverage. The Rams sat in soft zones for most of the game and Arizona's Carson Palmer carved them up for 327 passing yards. Veteran Cortland Finnegan had probably his worst game as a Ram, giving up six completions for 96 yards and a touchdown and committing a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties. Janoris Jenkins was pretty good on his side but it seems the Rams don't trust he and Trumaine Johnson (who is the third corner) to come up and press consistently just yet. The soft coverage had a sort of nullifying effect on the team's strong pass rush at times because it allowed Palmer to get the ball out quickly. Switching gears a bit, there's an obvious major storyline in this one involving Atlanta running back Steven Jackson. After nine years in St. Louis, how is Jackson adjusting to his new digs?

Yasinskas: Jackson had one big run in the opener, and I think the Falcons really are only beginning to figure out how to properly use him. He's a huge upgrade over Michael Turner, who got old in front of our eyes last season, and that left the Falcons without even the threat of a running game. Jackson changes that. The Falcons still are a pass-first team, but they want to include a healthy mix of Jackson as both a runner and receiver because that should only open the way for big things from White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. How are the Rams adapting to life without Jackson?

Wagoner: The Rams maintained throughout the offseason that they wanted to go with the en vogue running back by committee approach. Then Daryl Richardson clearly won the starting job, Isaiah Pead struggled and was suspended Week 1, and rookie Zac Stacy battled some injury issues in camp. Richardson got a bigger workload than expected against the Cardinals, and the Rams seem comfortable giving him the ball 20-plus times. There wasn't much room to run against the Cardinals, and the Rams know they need to improve there moving forward. Pead returns this week and the Rams want to see more of Stacy. Clearly, the jury is still out in regards to the running game. While we're on the topic of young position groups, it looked like the Falcons' young corners did pretty well without Asante Samuel against New Orleans. What did you see from that group last week and are you expecting Samuel to be ready to go this week?

Yasinskas: I think Samuel will return this week. But the Falcons are very high on rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. They're going to be targets because they're rookies, but they did all right in the opener against a very talented New Orleans passing offense. The thing that really has sped up the development of Trufant and Alford is that they got to work against White and Jones every day in training camp. The results weren't always pretty, but it made them both better players. They still might have some of the usual ups and downs for rookies, but they're only going to continue to get better. It’s time for our predictions.

By the numbers on Saints, Panthers

October, 31, 2011
10/31/11
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Sunday was not a good day in the NFC South. The Buccaneers and Falcons were on bye and the Panthers and Saints each lost.

The Saints lot to a previously winless St. Louis team and the Panthers lost by a field goal to a Minnesota team that came in with only one win.

With some help from ESPN Stats & Information and Elias Sports Bureau, let’s take a look at some statistical nuggets on the Saints and Panthers. We’ll start with the Saints.

St. Louis’ victory marked only the second time in the past 14 seasons that a winless team with at least six losses defeated a first-place team. The last such victory was by an 0-6 Miami team against a 4-2 St. Louis team in 2004.

Defense continues to be a problem area for the Saints. The Rams scored 17 points in the first half. That was one point more than the Rams had scored in any full game prior to Sunday. The Rams hadn’t scored 31 points in a game since Week 12 of the 2010 season.

The Saints allowed St. Louis defensive end Chris Long to record three sacks. He’s the first player from the Rams to do that since Leonard Little in Week 13 of the 2003 season.

The Saints came in averaging a league-high 34.1 points. The Rams were averaging a league-low 9.3 points per game. This game marked only the second time in the past 30 years that the league’s lowest-scoring team defeated the highest scoring team.

Now, let’s move over to the Panthers.

Carolina’s Cam Newton and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder made a little history. For the first time ever, two opposing rookies each passed for at least 200 yards without throwing an interception.

Carolina’s Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen each had a touchdown catch. It marked just the second time in franchise history that two Carolina tight ends had receiving touchdowns in the same game. The first time was by Dante Rosario and Christian Fauria in 2007.

Newton became the first Carolina quarterback to throw for three touchdown passes in a home game since Matt Moore in 2009.

Newton joined Kordell Stewart as the only player since 1970 to record 11 passing touchdowns and seven rushing touchdowns in the first eight games of the season.

Carolina’s Steve Smith had his fifth 100-yard receiving game of the season. Smith had only two such games in the 2009 and 2010 seasons combined.

Newton’s 1,381 passing yards in October is the highest in NFL history by a rookie in one calendar month. The previous record was 1,230 yards by Matthew Stafford in November 2009.

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