Matchup breakdown: Rams-Saints

December, 14, 2013
12/14/13
12:30
PM ET
EARTH CITY, Mo. – A look at three key matchups in Sunday's Rams-Saints game set for 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree (and more) vs. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham

Nobody on the Rams roster knows Graham than linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The former Saints teammates still work out together in Miami during the offseason.

In other words, nobody knows better than Dunbar exactly the challenge that New Orleans' dominant pass-catching tight end presents.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham has more touchdowns than any other receiver in the NFL this season.
"He can do it all," Dunbar said. "He's fast, he's strong, he's athletic. He has strong hands, can catch the ball at its highest point. Jimmy can do a lot. He's dangerous. He's one of the reasons why they're successful. He's definitely one of the reasons why that offense works."

Indeed, Graham has put together perhaps his best season in a career that's quickly adding big ones every year. Through the first 13 games, Graham leads the Saints in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,046) and touchdowns (14).

Graham's size and athleticism make him nearly an impossible cover for any one player though Ogletree is the Rams defender most qualified to try given his own size and athletic ability.

More likely, the Rams will look to throw multiple defenders at Graham, who make most of his hay down the seam.

Rams tight end Jared Cook vs. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro

The Rams have an athletic tight end of their own in Cook though he's nowhere near Graham's league in terms of production. The Saints defense has plenty of players capable of helping on Cook but the most intriguing might be the rookie Vaccaro.

Not many defensive backs have Vaccaro's versatility which allows New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to use him in many ways.

"The young kid, the Vaccaro kid, is playing really good," Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "It's not very often that you see a guy move from strong safety and then come down and play nickel when they go sub. So, it's a testament to his ability."

Vaccaro versus Tavon Austin would be an even more interesting matchup but Austin's injured ankle may prevent that one from materializing. In the meantime, don't be shocked to see the Saints use a few different methods for covering Cook, who leads the Rams in receptions and receiving yards.

Cook has struggled to get off physical press coverage this season so if and when Vaccaro is covering him, don't be surprised to see that matchup initiate at or near the line of scrimmage.

Rams linebackers vs. Saints running backs

This is a bit of a copout since we usually stick to individual matchups but the Saints won't allow for that to happen given their use of three backs in any and all situations.

New Orleans backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles all bring something different to the table. Sproles is the mighty mite back with the receiver skills. Ingram is the slashing, downhill runner. And Thomas is a sort of hybrid of the two with power to spare.

The Rams run defense has actually been better in recent weeks but it's not just New Orleans' running game they has to concern them.

I've seen those guys do it year in, year out," Dunbar said. "There's no way I would discredit what they do in the backfield. Pierre is definitely a hard working player. He runs the ball physical, downhill. He has this uncanny ability to stay on his feet. Sproles is explosive. He can catch the ball and he can do some things in the backfield. They use them both on screens. They just present so many challenges in the run and pass game."

In addition to standard run support duties, the Rams linebackers have to maintain discipline to keep the backs from hurting them in the pass game. Perhaps most important, they have to be sure tacklers in space to keep short gains from turning into big ones.

Nick Wagoner

ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter

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