NEW ORLEANS — During the New Orleans Saints' magical run to the Super Bowl XLIV title in February 2010, Drew Brees saw every day what a Gregg Williams defense could do to an offense. It was a Saints' defense Brees faced daily in practice.
The stakes on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be a bit different as the 4-6 Saints attempt to make yet another climb toward .500 against the 4-6 Los Angeles Rams.
After climbing to 4-4 and putting themselves back in the NFC playoff picture following an 0-3 start, the Saints have dropped their last two games in large part because of atrocious special teams play.
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New Orleans lost 25-23 to the Denver Broncos two weeks ago when Wil Lutz's potential game-winning PAT was blocked and returned 84 yards for the winning two points. Then, last week against Carolina, a Lutz field goal was blocked, leading to a late first-half touchdown — and a 10-point turnaround — in a 23-20 loss to the Panthers.
So when Brees faces Williams' defense on Sunday, he knows he will be in for a challenge. Williams, after all, was the architect of a ball-hawking Super Bowl defense in New Orleans that forced 39 turnovers in 2009.
It was also the defense that, because of Bountygate, got head coach Sean Payton and Williams suspended for a year. The NFL ruled the Saints' defense operated a cash-for-big-hits scheme, which led to Payton's 2012 suspension.
Brees knows that the Rams, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, are relentless in their pursuit.
“I know what I see on film,” Brees said of the Rams defense that is allowing just 18.7 point per game. “I know that the things he has done in the past are part of his scheme. I know that he's a very good defensive coach, and I know he's going to have some things for us that we haven't seen. My philosophy going into every game is always to expect the unexpected.”
Payton called Donald a rare talent. In 10 games, Donald has 31 tackles, five sacks, three passes defended and a forced fumble. Donald has collected 20 sacks since 2014.
“He might be one of the most talented interior guys there is,” Payton said. “(It's) just his energy, his motor and his ability, both in the run game and the pass game to be extremely disruptive. (He's) a guy you have to plan for in both phases. You know he's going to make some plays. You hope to contain him as much as you can.”
The Saints are averaging 28.5 points per game, and their defense has played more solidly in the last month. But special teams gaffes have been so bad — the Saints have had three kicks blocked and two others deflected — that Payton took the unusual step of hiring Kevin O'Dea, formerly of the Tampa Bay Bucs, as a special teams coaching assistant, working especially with the snapper, holder and kicker.
“We're looking to fortify the troops, not change them right now,” Payton said. (O'Dea) comes with expertise in developing and training kickers.”
Rams rookie Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, will make his second NFL start. In the Rams' 14-10 loss to Miami last week, Goff completed 17 of 31 passes for 134 yards and ran four times for 11 yards. It will be his first road start.
“It will be loud, that's about it,” Goff said. “I think (last week's start) helped. There were a lot of things I learned, good and bad stuff. … We still have a chance to make a run here, and it's not too late. We can do some special things if we put it together.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher said he realizes his defense will have to continue its stellar play to give Los Angeles a chance.
“We play hard, we're physical, and if you look at the points allowed and things like that, we've been doing a respectable job,” Fisher said. “But when we have an offense that's struggling, the defense has to do better. And when you lose a 14-10 game and get one turnover and have hands on three balls, you have to catch one of them.”
Mark Ingram was listed as questionable after going through the NFL concussion protocol last week, but he is likely to play.
“I think it's encouraging with him, and I think I've said that all along,” Payton said.
Saints left tackle Terron Armstead is questionable with a knee injury.