W2W4: Saints at Rams

ST. LOUIS -- The New Orleans Saints (10-3) will face the St. Louis Rams (5-8) today at 3:25 p.m. inside the Edward Jones Dome. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

Road warriors: The Saints aren’t the same team on the road as they are inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. That’s obvious. It’s silly to deny that fact. And former Saints linebacker Scott Shanle agreed recently, saying the Saints are almost “super-human” when they play inside their home dome.

But the reason the Saints bristle so much at the notion that they “struggle” on the road is because that’s not true either. They actually have the NFL’s best road record since 2009 (24-14).

All teams in the NFL become “human” on the road, and the Saints are no exception. They have to scratch and claw for some of their road victories. Occasionally they drop a stinker (like their last trip to St. Louis in 2009). But overall, they’re as good as, or better than, any team in the NFL under those foreign circumstances. So expect their best effort at St. Louis – especially at this crucial stage of the season.

Protecting Brees: This is the Rams’ best chance at an equalizer in this game. St. Louis pass-rushers Robert Quinn and Chris Long have formed one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the NFL this season with a combined 19.5 sacks – and they’re especially dangerous at home with the crowd noise on their side. Plus, the last time the Rams stunned the Saints in 2011, their six sacks against quarterback Drew Brees turned the tide (including three by Long).

The Saints’ pass protection has been solid this year, though. Although they gave up a few more sacks than usual early in the year, they’re now tied for the fourth best protection rate in the NFL, allowing a total of 26 sacks on the season. Left tackle Charles Brown, who will go head-to-head with Quinn today, insists he’s much more prepared now than he was two years ago in his “worst professional game,” when he struggled at St. Louis while serving as a part-time starter.

“I feel good about how I’ve been playing. I still need to get better at a lot of stuff though,” said Brown, who hasn’t missed a start in his first full year as the Saints’ starter at left tackle after his first three seasons were plagued by injuries.

Vaccaro’s impact: This would have been a perfect time to shine a spotlight on the potential matchup between Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and Rams rookie receiver Tavon Austin – two stars who battled each other in the Big 12 last year. But Austin is questionable with an ankle injury, which means Vaccaro might have to be deployed elsewhere.

Either way, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will find a use for his versatile playmaker, who has been playing some of his best football in December as a triple threat in pass coverage, against the run and as a blitzer.

“To me, the best free safety in the league is that kid [Earl] Thomas in Seattle. But the best safety in the league, that does everything, is Kenny,” Ryan said Friday. “He can cover receivers, he covers tight ends by himself, he makes tackles. You don’t see guys tackling like this guy does ... I mean, he tackles. He can do everything. He’s really smart. We put him in all of these multiple positions because he can handle it. We got a special guy there, and he’s a special player. He’s as good as anybody in this league, and he’s a rookie, so he’s only getting better. Does he have a special talent to be able to cover people? There’s no question he does. Does he love the game? Probably more than any young player I’ve seen come out in a long time. This guy is going to be fantastic for a long time.”

Screen door open: The Saints will certainly test the Rams’ secondary – especially if top cornerback Janoris Jenkins can’t play. But the Saints will also mix in some screen passes to Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas – a play that ranks as one of their greatest strengths, and one of the Rams’ greatest weaknesses. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rams are the worst team in the NFL at defending the screen pass, allowing 9.4 yards per reception on throws at or behind the line of scrimmage.