Conventional wisdom has been that the Saints have been 7-9 what seems like in perpetuity because of defense. It’s largely true. Sure, the offense botched a handful of games and special teams has sometimes been a calamity… but for the most part the only constant during this time of football mediocrity has been a porous defense. And while measuring the quality of a unit based on total yardage has its flaws, the defense has consistently been bad enough to prevent a team with the #1 offense in the NFL from making the playoffs. The Saints showed major strides last year by turning in 27th best defense out of 32 team, though. Hard to believe, I know, but that’s a big step in the right direction considering the historically bad outputs of 2012, 2014 and 2015. Those defenses weren’t only bottom feeders in the league for their respective years, I’d put those three units in the top 10 worst all time in NFL history. So how much more do they need to improve to get to the playoffs assuming the offense stays as productive? Maybe not much at all.
The old adage that “defense wins championships” is no longer true in this era. At least not in my opinion. Consider this:
Of the NFL’s top 10 2016 defenses in terms of yards yielded, only four made the playoffs, or less than half.
Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs in 2016, half had below average defenses. Five of those were ranked 22nd or lower. One defense, the Miami Dolphins (29th overall), was ranked worse than the Saints. The Saints also had to play the Falcons’ offense twice last year, which no one could stop, certainly not the Saints. That inflated their yardage yield and ranking points quite a bit. The Chiefs (24), Falcons (25) and Raiders (26) were playoff teams just barely ahead of the Saints at 27.
That being said, the two worst teams in the league (49ers and Browns) also had the two worst defenses. So it’s not like having a bad defense means nothing. The Jaguars (#6) and the Rams (#9), on the other hand, had 7 wins between them despite both having top 10 defenses. They, along with the Broncos, are poster teams for what a terrible offense can do to a stellar defense. These teams are basically going “reverse Saints”.
So here’s the point – the Saints had a lot of close games last year. They get a little better in the 2 minute drill, they maintain a solid scoring and yard gaining ability on offense, and they avoid disastrous kick blocks late in games that swing the balance? They’re probably a playoff team or close to. Sure, it would be nice for the Saints to have a top 15 defense, but considering again that 5 of the 12 playoff teams last year were 22nd or worse on defense in terms of yards – I think improving 5 spots on defense up to 22 would definitely be enough if they maintain their offensive quality. That might be a little tougher without Nick Fairley, though, and other guys will need to step up.
You could also make the claim that “total defense” defined by yards has now become a throw away stat. 3rd down conversion, red zone conversion, sacks and turnovers are stats that you can definitely argue swing the outcome of games more significantly. That’s fair and a conversation I always enjoy having. You can get pretty complex looking into those specifics. So the thing is the Saints could maintain being 27th overall but have a few more sacks and a few more interceptions and they will have a better record. The Dolphins were a miserable defense (29th overall) for example, but yet they were excellent getting off the field on 3rd down… 4th best in the league. So yeah, they got gashed for yards, but when 3rd down came up they got off the field. The Saints were 28th in that area. So the little areas like that are where they can make big strides. The Dolphins also had 3 more sacks and 7 more interceptions than the Saints in 2016… so again they felt being 29th less than the Saints felt being 27th because while they hemorrhaged yards they were occasionally making things happen. I think we can all agree we’d prefer the Dolphins 29th ranked defense to the Saints 27th ranked defense. That’s why I’d like to see the Saints get as aggressive as possible defensively. Give up yards if you must, but just make things happen here and there. That was a hallmark of the Falcons defense in 2016, too.
The bottom line is they don’t need to get that much better… just slightly better in certain areas. Get a few more sacks, get a few more turnovers, get a little bit better of a percentage on 3rd down… they do those three things and playoffs here they come.