The first and the most important blow was delivered by Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
A scintillating sack was not required. The two-time NFL defensive player of the year hit the right hand of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the first quarter, inflicting a thumb injury that knocked the future Hall of Famer out of Sunday’s game at the Coliseum.
On consecutive plays in the second half, linebacker Clay Matthews sacked Teddy Bridgewater, and defensive lineman Michael Brockers followed with another.
Those three plays — plus another controversial one that has become part and parcel of any game between these NFC powers — enabled the Rams to pull away from the Saints for a 27-9 victory before a crowd of 71,460.
On a day when quarterback Jared Goff passed and ran for touchdowns and Todd Gurley scored his first touchdown of the season, the defense was the difference as the Rams defeated the Saints in a rematch of last season’s NFC championship game.
“Our defense was outstanding from the jump,” said Rams coach Sean McVay, whose team improved to 2-0 heading into a “Sunday Night Football” game against the Cleveland Browns.
With Brees on the sideline, the Rams limited the Saints to 244 yards. They neutralized dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara and limited star receiver Michael Thomas to only 89 yards on 10 catches. That effort aided an offense that managed only two first-half field goals before scoring three second-half touchdowns.
“Hell of a day, hell of a day for them,” Goff said of the defense. “When they do that, it makes our job easy.”
Rams safeties Eric Weddle and John Johnson established an early tone when they sandwiched Saints tight end Jared Cook as he attempted to catch Brees’ second pass. The ball tipped off Cooks’ hands and Johnson caught it as he lay on the turf. The Rams converted the turnover into a field goal.
That set the stage for Donald.
After the Rams’ 30-27 season-opening victory over the Carolina Panthers, Donald expressed frustration about his performance. Facing constant double teams should not stop him from making plays, he said.
Donald made a big one on Brees during the Saints’ second series.
“I smacked his hand,” Donald said.
The contact resembled an inadvertently violent high-five, and when the Saints got the ball back late in the quarter, Bridgewater was on the field.
“You’re hitting your hand on stuff all the time, helmets and stuff,” Brees said. “You might get jammed thumbs, jammed fingers different things where it swells up and what have you.
“But this felt like something a bit more significant that prevented me from gripping the ball.”
The Rams, while lavishing respectful praise on Brees and Bridgewater, were not complaining.
“Any time you lose a first-ballot hall of fame quarterback — a guy that’s the all-time leading passer — there’s definitely some things that you feel like, ‘All right, we’ve got to make sure we take advantage of this,’ ” McVay said.
Veteran cornerback Aqib Talib sensed a change.
“I always say confidence is everything in football,” he said, “so when Drew Brees goes out the game, confidence on the defense just goes through the roof.”
As does aggressiveness, cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said.
“You kind of sink your teeth in a little bit,” he said.
The Rams got a break when an apparent 87-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan was at first ruled an incomplete pass. Upon review, it was ruled a fumble, but because officials had whistled the play dead, the ball was spotted at the Saints’ 13-yard line.
On the ensuing drive, the Rams stopped Kamara on a fourth-and-one play on the Saints 48, setting up Greg Zuerlein’s second field goal for a 6-3 halftime lead.
After Gurley’s short touchdown run late in the third quarter put the Rams ahead, 13-6, Matthews and Brockers went to work. On second down, Matthews burst into the backfield, sacked Bridgewater and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Saints.
“You kind of feel a change of guard,” Matthews said, “A little bit of a swing of momentum.”
Brockers kept it going by sacking Bridgewater on the next play.
“After a while,” Brockers said of defensive momentum and how it affects an opposing offense, “it’s like an avalanche. It just piles on you.”
JoJo Natson’s punt return set up Goff’s short touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks for 20-6 lead. The Saints added a fourth-quarter field goal before Cooper Kupp’s 66-yard catch-and-run reception led to Goff’s sneak that sealed the victory.
“Every game is different and this game took us a little while to find it,” said Goff, who completed 19 of 28 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown. “Frankly, I don’t think it really matters. We win, we win.
“If we find it early, you’d obviously love that, but any way it happens, we are happy with it.”