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Saints Super Bowl Hopes Hinge on O-Line Slowing Down the “Beast From the East” in NFC Championship Game

The New Orleans Saints offensive line was one of the team’s notable strengths during their stellar 2018 Regular Season, which saw them finish with a (13-3) win-loss record and earn home-field advantage and the #1 overall Playoff seed in the NFC.

But unfortunately for the Black and Gold, a sudden wave of injuries hit the O-Line towards the end of the season; and now their Super Bowl hopes could hinge on their ability to stop the ‘Beast From the East” — Rams All-Pro defensive tackle and likely 2018 NFL Defensive MVP Aaron Donald — who led the NFL in sacks (20.5), tackles for loss (26), and QB “hits” (41).

Donald, who is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native and a former unanimous All-American at the University of Pittsburgh, was virtually unstoppable in the recently-completed 2018 Regular Season and additionally tallied 59 tackles (41 solo), 1 pass defensed / batted down, and 4 forced fumbles (2 recovered).

And as if that weren’t impressive enough, Donald also broke former Minnesota Vikings DT Keith Millard’s single-season record for sacks by a defensive tackle (18), which was originally set back in 1989.  As a direct result of that notable accomplishment, Donald set a Rams franchise record, breaking former defensive end Robert Quinn’s mark of 19.

It goes without saying that Donald is the NFL’s most dominant defensive player; and now the Saints O-Line will be tasked with slowing down the 27-year old superstar who along with his Rams defensive teammates, shut down NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys in their 30-22 Divisional Round victory out in Los Angeles last weekend.

Donald of course is aided by two other very capable players in their own right along the Rams D-Line with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Michael Brockers; and they will come into Sunday’s NFC Championship Game showdown at the Superdome with the intention of taking advantage of a Saints offensive line that has dealt with a series of injuries to the unit late in the season. 

Giving Drew Brees ample enough time to throw the football and opening holes for RB’s Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to run through are vitally important to the Saints’ chances of emerging victorious and advancing to the Super Bowl.

But they’ll have to do so by figuring out a way to slow down the Rams D-Line and Donald in particular, with two key players on the O-Line that have dealt with nagging injuries over the last few weeks in starting left tackle Terron Armstead (torn pectoral muscle in his chest) and starting left guard Andrus Peat (who has been playing in spite of a broken hand that he recently had surgery on).

Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune

That fact isn’t lost at all by Saints head coach Sean Payton; who told New Orleans-based writer Herbie Teope that the team is well aware of the challenges that come with trying to achieve that goal.

“It’s hard to say you’re going to keep him in check,” Payton said Wednesday of the Rams’ defensive lineman. “He’s played as well at that three-technique position that we’ve seen in years.

“I mean, arguably and I don’t know even if it’s an argument, he’s the best defensive player today in football. His numbers, his production, it shows up in the run game, it shows up in the passing game and it’s a challenge.”

Stopping or at least slowing down Donald will be the specific assignment for Peat to take on. But he’ll be doing so after he broke his hand in the season finale against the Panthers in what essentially was a meaningless game. Now Peat will be playing in what easily will be the biggest game of his life at a certain disadvantage.

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Peat was outstanding at times in the 2018 Regular Season, and his play certainly was just one of the reasons why why the Saints O-Line was rated the 2nd best O-Line in all of Pro Football. But playing with a broken hand against the most physically dominant player in the sport is likely asking for a bit too much.

Last week in the Saints’ come-from-behind 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round, Peat played with a glove over the surgically-repaired hand but struggled mightily as he was flagged for four penalties — two holding calls and two false starts — and also appeared to have had some difficulty in defending Philly’s running game.

Legendary Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will have Donald move around to both sides of the line, so most of his match-ups will come against either Peat or right guard Larry Warford. But clearly with that broken hand being an issue, you can expect that Donald most likely will line up on Peat’s side.

Undoubtedly, the Saints must find ways to give Peat some help; and it’s expected that the Saints will try to double-team the 6-foot-1, 280 pound Donald as often as possible. One likely option is center Max Unger, although he’ll have his hands full with Suh.

Back in that November contest at the Superdome , the Saints held Donald without a sack, but he still managed 1 tackle for loss, 4 QB “hits” on Brees, 1 pass defensed / batted down, and recovered a fumble.

In 3 career games against New Orleans, Donald has 2 sacks, 10 tackles (8 solo), 5 tackles for loss. 7 QB “hits”, 1 pass defensed / batted down, and 1 forced fumble (1 recovered).

Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune

Suffice it to say: Donald is a force of nature that has to be neutralized, of the Saints are intent on winning Sunday’s game and advancing to Super Bowl LIII (53). 

Surely the Saints have devised a plan, which we’ll more than likely see be implemented fully on Sunday. Whether or not it’s successful or not, could ultimately be one of the deciding factors in the Saints’ chances of earning a trip to Atlanta in two more weeks.

But that will only happen if the Saints O-Line is up to the task of slowing down the “Beast From the East”….

Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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