NEW ORLEANS — The Saints entered Week 9 with a full understanding the Los Angeles Rams were loaded on offense at the skill positions.
One player, however, had the Saints defense’s full attention — running back Todd Gurley. Not a bad strategy to not allow him to hurt the team when considering Gurley entered the game averaging 143.8 total yards from scrimmage.
And when the dust settled in the Saints’ wild 45-35 win, consider the mission accomplished. Gurley’s final numbers reflected 79 total yards (68 yards rushing), marking just the third time this season he failed to record 100 or more total yards in a game, with the previous two times occurring in Week 2 and Week 7 blowout wins.
So, what did the Saints do to limit the explosive running back? Turns out the defense, which ranked No. 1 against the run, took on a simple mentality of swarming to the football whenever Gurley touched it.
“Eleven guys to the ball,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins told NFL.com. “We were just able to get a lot of guys to the ball.
“Don’t get me wrong, like I said earlier in the week, he’s an MVP-caliber player and he made his plays when he had his chances. But overall, to be able to hold him and not allow him to really wreck this game was big for us.”
Defensive end Alex Okafor agreed emphatically, adding the Saints entered the game knowing they had to be sound in gap responsibilities, which provided positive results.
“Outside of about four or five runs, I think we did a hell of a job,” he told NFL.com. “The hardest challenge is he’s such a great player and they’re such a great team, especially offensively that they’re going to get theirs. The key is don’t let that affect you.”
Gurley started off hot in the first quarter, recording 33 yards, which included an 8-yard touchdown run, on five carries.
But the Saints didn’t allow the runs to affect how they played defense the rest of the game against Gurley.
Rankins said he and his teammates knew the Rams run a lot of stretch and zone plays designed to take advantage of Gurley’s power and speed in the open field, both of which occurred on the Rams’ opening drive.
“At that point, you just identify what the run was,” Rankins explained. “They were gashing us, they were hitting us down the field. But once we were able to kind of talk about it and fit things right with the [line]backers and up front, we were good and we were able to contain for the most part. He broke loose a couple of times, but for the most part we were able to corral him.”
The attacking approach on Gurley also extended to the passing game, where the running back managed just 11 yards receiving on six catches, averaging just 1.9 yards per catch. But as was often the case throughout the game, whenever Gurley touched the football, he was met almost immediately by a Saints defensive player.
Meanwhile, the Rams had to look elsewhere with their top weapon in check. Quarterback Jared Goff completed 28 of 40 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, and wide receiver Brandin Cooks led the aerial attack with six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown.
But the Saints apparently were fine with Goff and the receiving group getting their numbers just as long as one certain player wasn’t hurting them.
In the defense’s mind, containing Gurley meant a realistic chance to come out of Sunday with a win knowing the Saints’ offense totaled 141 yards on the ground while the Rams managed 92 yard rushing as a team.
“You can’t take away everyone; they have so many weapons,” Okafor said. “If you try to take away everyone, you’re going to take away no one. We came in saying we had to limit the run, and without even watching the game, if you look at the stat sheets, whoever had the most rushing yards was going to win the game and we knew that coming in. And that held true.”