The Saints FINALLY got some good grades going across the board on the defense, and better yet they earned those grades as well. My initial instinct was going to be to penalize them for playing a bad offense and taking advantage of some awful QB play, but after watching the game again I’m not going to do that. It’s true the Panthers were without their top playmakers, and that they are a bad offense, however the Saints also executed for the most part and helped to force 2 of the 3 turnovers more than the offense did to give it away. Here are the grades:
Defensive Line: B+
It was very tempting to give this unit an A and call it a day just for getting 4 sacks. However, they were playing an extremely suspect line and a QB who holds onto the ball way too long, also one of those sacks was because Khalil (the bad one) forgot Cameron Jordan exists. I’m not penalizing them for playing bad opponents, but I’m not going to give the unit an A simply because I felt that the interior pressure was still too inconsistent and they were downright bad early against the run. With that said still a very successful day for the defensive line, and we are starting to at least see flashes of the unit we saw in the preseason.
If the Panthers didn’t get down big and get forced to mostly abandon the run this grade would be a lot lower. I felt AJ Klein was solid, and even good at times in the first two games, he was not against Carolina. The Saints linebackers repeatedly and consistently were unable to keep contain on the Panthers misdirection runs early, and if it wasn’t for a lucky sack and a Ken Crawley tackle the Saints might have been the ones down 10 early. I still think the Saints best linebacker is Kenny Vacarro (when he isn’t playing dumb and until Anzalone gets more experience), but that really tells you the way this unit has played. The thing is that the Saints linebackers weren’t terrible like in years past, but the unit is limited. Defensive line play and experience are both causing them to look worse than they are, but the fact is that they didn’t execute at all early, and with a little less luck that could have cost the Saints the game.
The Saints corners weren’t perfect, but they didn’t give up any big plays, they made several of their own, and they consistently had good coverage throughout the game. That’s an A in my book. Ken Crawley had really good coverage and was a highly effective tackler throughout the game, he was beaten deep twice, but on one he had safety help and on the other he was closing and it looked to me as if the ball had been thrown well he would have been able to make a play on it, so no demerit for either. PJ Williams had good coverage throughout the day and a fantastic interception that was maybe the best flash we’ve seen of the player he looked like coming out of Florida State. The fact that the unit bounced back and played their best game without Marshon Lattimore is a good sign, and we can’t knock them for level of competition because they were getting killed by fullbacks against the Patriots.
Marcus Williams gets an A. Not only did he make an unbelievable interception off of a tipped pass (on an incredibly poor throw by Newton), but Williams was in position to make plays and make throws too tough for Newton to make consistently. Kenny Vacarro gets a C, and if it wasn’t for tipping the pass and his interception it might have been a D-. Vacarro lost coverage on a big play to McCaffery where he inexplicably bit on a hesitation and allowed McCaffery to get free deep behind him by having poor ‘eyes’ and poor technique, and on the same play an extremely lazy attempt to down his man. Kenny did look better in game 3 than the first two, but he still seems to be struggling making the right plays and being in the right position. For a guy in his 5th year and as the most tenured member of the secondary thats just not acceptable.
Dennis Allen and crew deserve some credit. They made their adjustments, recognized that they were playing a QB under siege, and blitzed on over 40% of the plays to take advantage of that. It wasn’t a perfect game (it rarely is), but Allen did a good job of putting guys in spots to succeed, and not asking young players to do more than they are ready for. Playing the Panthers definitely helped, but Allen and company did a good job of having their guys ready and pushing the right buttons to get the win. I’m giving them some extra credit because of the last two weeks as well.
Special Teams: A-
Thomas Morestead remains a kicking savant, and the Saints continued to be decent in the return game, solid in coverage, and consistent overall. That’s going to keep the grades high. They got an A- as Lutz missed another 50+ yard kick wide, Lutz seems to be having issues bending his kicks, he’s got plenty of leg, but he still has room to grow to become an elite kicker. He’s been automatic inside of 50 though.