Facing the NFL’s all-time leading passer, the Rams were a well-rounded defense.
Absolutely no corners.
Drew Brees picked them apart, leading New Orleans to a 45-35 victory that not only scuffed the pristine record of the 8-1 Rams — they’ll get over that — but also tilted the balance of power in the NFC, as the Saints would have home-field advantage if both teams were to run the table.
The more pressing issue for the Rams is their weakness in pass coverage that was exposed by Brees, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers the Sunday before. That’s troubling with Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes in the pipeline, and no obvious solution in sight. The league is set up for quarterbacks to put up astronomical numbers, yet the best teams find a way to slow that roll.
Yes, the Rams can score like crazy. They were unfazed by an 18-point halftime deficit against the Saints, and roared back to tie the score 35-35 in less than 1½ quarters. But if you can’t stop a good passer, the odds are heavily against you making it very far in the postseason.
The signature memory of this game is cornerback Marcus Peters getting posterized by Saints receiver Michael Thomas, losing track of him in coverage on third down, then leaping in vain as the ball sailed over his head for a 72-yard touchdown.
Peters has yet to live up to the lofty expectations that came when the Rams traded for him in the offseason. He was a two-time Pro Bowl selection in Kansas City whose hot temper was offset by his ability to make plays.
He was testy after the game when asked if he’s still bothered by a calf injury he suffered in Week 3 against the Chargers.
“How long ago was that?” he asked. “That was like seven weeks ago. I’m healthy now, man. Things happen like that.”
Brees completed passes all over the field — he was 25 of 36 for 346 yards and four touchdowns — but repeatedly threw Peters’ way. Thomas set a Saints single-game record with 211 yards on 12 catches.
“A lot of times, you see it on film with Marcus Peters where they say, ‘All right, you just take their best guy, you take care of him, and we’ll worry about the rest of them,’ ” Brees said. “That’s basically what happened on that [touchdown] play. Everybody’s trying to match, and you kind of say, ‘All right, Peters, you got Mike T.’ ”
Asked after the game if he was expecting Peters to be opposite Thomas on the long touchdown, Saints coach Sean Payton was unusually candid.
“That was the plan,” he said. “They were going to travel Marcus to him, and that was fine by us. We thought we really liked that matchup — a lot.”
None of this happens in a vacuum. If the Rams aren’t getting enough pressure up front, it’s harder on the secondary. If the secondary can blanket the receivers for a half-second longer, it gives the pass rushers a blink more time to get to Brees, whose ability to elude a pass rush is among that factors that will make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The Rams never got to him.
“In the second half, we did some things to try and open it up, and we got some more pressure on him, but he was getting the ball out,” defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. “Sometimes you have big games. Sometimes you get a bunch [of sacks], sometimes you get a couple, and some you get none. We just have to watch the film, make the corrections, and fix it.”
There might have been a communication breakdown on the long touchdown. Peters might have been expecting help; he declined to elaborate or even go down that path.
“Regardless of communications,” he said, “I got beat.”
The bottom line is, no one in the secondary played particularly well, and the Rams aren’t able to get cornerback Aqib Talib back from injured reserve until after their bye in three weeks. He’s a five-time Pro Bowl player, but he’s also 32, typically the sunset of a player’s career at that position. He can’t be expected to be the pass-defending panacea.
Like so many defenses before them, the Rams left the Superdome shaking their heads, marveling at the ability of Brees, and looking to put the loss behind them.
But if there were a troubling injury report from this game, it might read: Rams (exposed Achilles).
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer