Time of Possession Vital for New Orleans Saints in NFC Championship

Saints in NFC Championship

The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams beat two very different teams to advance to the NFC Championship game. However, they won their games in a similar fashion; by controlling the game’s pace with excellent situational defense and a methodical offensive approach. Since both teams rank near the top of the NFL in time of possession, this could be the key to victory for the Saints or Rams again this week.

Here are some of the ways New Orleans can keep time of possession in their favor.

Clock Control Key for New Orleans Saints in NFC Championship Game

Contain Rams Running Game Early On

Los Angeles boasts one of the league’s most dangerous passing attacks, but the engine of their offense is the running game. The Rams gained the third-most rushing yards (139.4 yards per game) in the regular season and averaged a third-ranked 4.9 yards per carry. Of the five games Los Angeles failed to reach 100 yards rushing, three resulted in losses.

Veteran running back C.J. Anderson joined the Rams late in the season as 2017 All-Pro Todd Gurley rested a knee injury. In each of his three games with Los Angeles, Anderson has run for over 120 yards. Last week in their win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams had Gurley and Anderson in the backfield together for the first time and gained an incredible 273 rushing yards.

Seven of the Rams first 11 plays against Dallas were runs, and they finished the game with 48 rushing attempts; exceeding their season average of 29.8 attempts per game by a significant margin. This could seem like an unusual strategy against the Cowboys fifth-ranked run defense, but since Dallas excels at controlling the clock with their own productive running game, the Rams were likely trying to ensure time of possession was in their favor. The run-heavy approach obviously worked to perfection, and Los Angeles possessed the ball for 12:26 longer than Dallas.

The Rams running game now looks even more dangerous after last week, but if any team can minimize Gurley and Anderson it’s the Saints. They finished the season ranked second in both rushing yards allowed (80.2 yards per game) and rushing average allowed (3.6 yards per carry).

The most rushing yards an opponent gained against New Orleans was 112 yards, way back in week one. When teams do run successfully against New Orleans, they typically come away with a win. All three teams that beat New Orleans ran for at least 99 yards.

The Saints did a good job of bottling up Gurley in their 45-35 win over the Rams in week nine. Los Angeles went run-heavy on their first possession in that game as well. Five of their six plays on the drive were rushes, including an eight-yard Gurley touchdown run. After gaining 29 rushing yards on that drive, Gurley finished the game with just 68 yards. He did break loose on a 24-yard run in the third quarter but averaged just 3.6 yards on his other 12 carries.

Los Angeles finished the regular season ranked second in early-down success (per Sharp Football Stats) largely due to their steady run game. If New Orleans can diminish the effect of Gurley and Anderson, it will set up more third and long plays for the Rams, and make it easier to get them off the field.

The Saints run defense will naturally be affected by the loss of budding defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins last week to an Achilles injury. However, David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison, and Taylor Stallworth have all played well against the run this season and should be up to the challenge on Sunday.

Duplicate Past Run Success Against Los Angeles

The Saints have their own potent backfield duo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and they’ve had good games against the Rams in each of the last two seasons. In their 2017 trip to Los Angeles, Kamara and Ingram collectively gained 118 rushing yards, including a 74-yard Kamara touchdown run in the first quarter.

Earlier this year, New Orleans gained 141 rushing yards against the Rams, including 102 yards in the first half. They routinely found success with cutback runs and toss plays, which helped the Saints avoid the dangerous interior line combination of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Donald had just one tackle for a loss all game, while Suh made two tackles.

In general, the Rams have struggled against the run all season. They ended the regular season with a 23rd-ranked run defense (122.3 yards per game) and allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry. In nine of their final ten regular season games, Los Angeles allowed 100 or more yards rushing, including a 273-yard effort by the Seattle Seahawks. They did however put forth their best effort of the season last week, holding the Cowboys tenth-ranked rushing offense to 50 yards and 2.2 yards per carry.

New Orleans finished the regular season with the sixth-most productive rushing offense (126.6 yards per game), though they lacked efficiency at times, averaging a 17th-ranked 4.3 yards per carry. Last week, The Saints run game met expectations against the Philadelphia Eagles, gaining 137 yards at 4.4 yards per carry and helping to generate nearly 38 minutes of possession in the win.

The Rams run defense is coming off an impressive effort against 2018 rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott, but most signals point to New Orleans having another successful day running against Los Angeles.

Keep the Chains Moving

Running the ball burns time more effectively than passing, but there’s more to sustaining time-consuming drives than a successful run game. At some point, a third and long situation will come up. Fortunately, Drew Brees has Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas to rely on these downs.

One key concept in the Saints week nine win over the Rams was a choice route by Kamara. The running back picked up two first downs on catches where he chose an out route, along with a touchdown on a third and eight play. Meanwhile, Thomas went off for a career-high 211 yards on 13 catches in that game, picking up 11 first downs along the way. Thomas had similar success last week, hauling in 12 catches for 171 yards, six of which went for first downs including three third down conversions.

The Saints have had impressive time-consuming drives throughout the season. In a week seven win over the Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans opened with a 20-play drive that exceeded 10 minutes. The drive resulted in a lost fumble, but it still helped the Saints play keep away against a run-heavy Ravens offense.

Last week, New Orleans took their first lead over Philadelphia with a 92-yard third quarter drive that spanned 11 minutes and 29 seconds. A well-rested Saints defense forced the Eagles to punt after just five plays on the ensuing drive.

On the season, the Saints ranked top five in plays, yards, and points per drive, and led the NFL with an average drive time of three minutes and two seconds. New Orleans was the only team with a higher success rate than Los Angeles on early downs and they converted on a seventh-best 44.6 percent of third down attempts.

When New Orleans can’t get a first down on the first three tries, they can usually get it on the fourth try when head coach Sean Payton deems the risk necessary. The Saints converted on 13 of 16 fourth down attempts during the season, good for the league’s second-best 81.2 percent conversion rate. Jack of all trades Taysom Hill has been involved in three successful fake punts, including a direct snap last week that helped New Orleans drive to their first score of the game.

Prevent an Early Rams Lead

Since the Saints defensive backfield often struggles with consistency, Los Angeles may try to replicate what Philadelphia did last week in building an early 14-0 lead through the air. Quarterback Nick Foles threw for 113 yards at 12.5 yards per attempt in the first quarter, generating a near-perfect 155.8 passer rating. However, the Eagles were unable to find balance on offense and failed to score in the final three quarters. Their run game never materialized, thus enabling New Orleans to clamp down in coverage.

The Rams scored touchdowns on their first two drives when they last played New Orleans, but the Saints offense also started fast with two first-quarter touchdowns. If Los Angeles gets another hot start and the Saints can’t keep pace, catching up would be an extremely strenuous task. The Rams have one of the league’s most balanced offenses, and they can choose to pile on more yardage and points with an early lead, or slow things down with their run game unless the Saints defense has another sharp in-game turnaround.


If the Saints can do some of these things successfully in the first half and create a sense of urgency for Los Angeles, it will put a lot of pressure on quarterback Jared Goff, who already has to endure a rowdy Superdome audience that reached 128 decibels last Sunday in his first ever road playoff game.

New Orleans can win the time of possession battle against Los Angeles and advance to the Super Bowl by executing the strengths that have gotten them this far. They just have to find ways to do so against a similarly rejuvenated franchise with great coaching and a star-studded roster.

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