Since the playoff loss in the 2013 season to the eventual Super Bowl champs, the Saints have been on a mission to build a championship defense.
The league is cyclical. When the Saints won their one and only Super Bowl title, offense was king, mainly due to rule changes designed to favor the offense to make the game more exciting.
The old adage of “defense wins championships” took a brief hiatus, but it came back, and on that cold day in Seattle, it was staring Sean Payton right in the face.
Although the Saints had a bit of a defensive revival that year, ending the season with a top 5 defense, it was nothing compared to the ball hawking, punishing Legion of Boom.
The Saints spent the next 3 off seasons trying to rebuild the defense from the ground up, and trading away offensive assets to do it. The team try to stock as much young talent as they could as well as adding veteran talent in free agency, with varying degrees of success.
But all that led to 3 straight 7-9 finishes, and a fan base tired of the same script acted out over and over again. Many, including myself, had come to believe that Sean Payton has lost his ability to effectively run a team.
Even Brees was becoming noticeably doubtful, and many considered this a make or break season for Payton.
Everyone was cautiously optimistic about the defense’s performance in the preseason, cautiously because they had looked good before in preseasons past and faltered when real games were being played.
However, the first two games of the year produced flashbacks for a fanbase with PTSD. Busted coverages, giving up 3rd and longs, being fooled by misdirection plays, it was all so…familiar. Tired. Blah.
Which makes the defense’s performance the past 5 games that much more surprising.
It would one thing for the team to come out looking more like the defense we saw in preseason, with the hopes and cautious optimism of the fanbase being rewarded in a big way. But to come out of the gate looking like we were going to have another historically bad defense (over 1000 yards the first two games combined) and then to performed better than anyone could have realistically hoped for or imagine? Well, that’s just special.
And it is special.
Cam Jordan has been one of the best edge defenders for some years now, being elite against the run and being a constant disruptive force at multiple spots across the line, even if the stat sheet doesn’t always reflect it. But he hasn’t had a competent player on the other side since Junior Galette.
Hau’oli Kikaha looked like he had the potential to be that player during his rookie year, but in addition to being miscast as a linebacker, injuries set back his development, and he was eventually lost for the entirety of his sophomore season.
With Kikaha’s future in doubt, the Saints added veteran Alex Okafor formally of the Cardinals where he was a stand-up edge defender. The Saints mostly run four man fronts, and it seems to have suited Okafor much better, who has graded really well against as well as producing steady pressure. Rookie Trey Hendrickson has started to see his snaps increase and has rewarded the team with real production. That coupled with the second year leaps from Rankins and Onyemata, Jordan finally has a line who can turn his past near misses into actualities.
But probably the biggest reason for Jordan’s increased production is opposing quarterbacks really don’t have anywhere to go with the ball.
I admittedly didn’t know much about Marshon Lattimore when we drafted him, mainly because no one expected him to fall to the Saints, so I didn’t watch any of his tape or read much about him at all. But after the Saints drafted him I watched about 4-5 of his games. Not the highlights, but all of his snaps, and after i was done I may have counted a couple of bad snaps.
I was more than impressed. He seemed to play the CPU defense in cheat mode.
Marshon can legitimately lock down a #1 receiver with no help. When you have a player like that it frees up your safeties to assist other corners, disguise blitzes and coverages, and makes it easier on the rest of the defense in general.
The reverse is also true. When you have a liability on defense, like a Corey White, Brandon Browner or a BW Webb, it puts a tremendous strain on the defense that continually has to compensate for that weakness.
There are definitely positions on this defense that can be upgraded, but at the moment we don’t have anyone on the defense that I feel is complete liability and can lose a game for us.
The Saints offense hasn’t been it’s usual self and it hasn’t had to be. When the team has needed a stop, needed a turn over to seal the game, the defense has answered the call.
With all of the improvement they still have their problems, mainly a lack of athleticism at linebacker.
Anzalone made some rookie mistakes but was showing real promise before his injury, flying around the field and showing speed we haven’t seen from a Saints linebacker for some time. And as many have pointed out, it was ironic that the play he was injured on was a play that no other linebacker on the team could make.
To compensate the team started deploying more 3 and 4 safety sets, effectively making Kenny Vaccaro the OLB/Nickel corner. The logic is simple: Vaccaro gives them the athletic ability to cover slot receivers, tightends and backs out of the backfield while providing the strength to hold up in run support. No nickel corner can provide that, which is part of why PJ Williams hasn’t seen the field as of late.
And while the strength of the defense lies in their young secondary, it’s also their weakness. They can be confused by presnap movement, especially when they’re in zone coverage. I chock that up to a lack of experience and just learning how to communicate with each other.
The offense may see some steady improvement as the year goes along, but it’s pretty much is what it is. It won’t be confused with the dynamic offenses of the past, but it’s still an offense most NFL fans would love to have.
And with a defense that can bail them out when things are slow, they’re well on their way to ending this playoff drought.