For the third week straight the Saints won, and for the third week straight the defense was the driving force behind the victory. The Saints defense is far from perfect, they still give up too many first downs, they still allow big plays in the passing game, and tackling has been inconsistent. However, the unit has come an incredibly long way from the first two weeks where they were at their dumpster fire best from the past few seasons. The Saints defense is young, aggressive, a little cocky (in a good way), and is finally forming the identity they will need to become not a weakness for the team…but a strength.
Here’s the grades for what was largely a dominant performance against the Lions (don’t let the 38 points fool you).
Defensive Line: A
The defensive line didn’t completely dominate this game, but they got pretty close. The Saints defensive line did a great job of shutting down the run and pressuring Matthew Stafford throughout the game. They didn’t win early in plays (other than one guy we’ll talk about in a second), and the pass rush wasn’t able to create immediate pressure, but they consistently closed down lanes, created pressure over time, and created a lot of stress for the Lions offense. That was their job. The defensive line has been an asset for the defense all year, and Alex Okafor continues to be an impact pressure player when it counts. Sheldon Rankins continued on his evolution on Sunday as he continues to generate more pressure as well as to create opportunities for others. He doesn’t look like a top 15 pick just yet, especially on the stat sheet, and he sure as heck isn’t a Nick Fairley…but he’s improving.
Cameron Jordan; A++++
Generally I only go by position group and grade units as a whole, but Cameron Jordan was so good on Sunday he deserves his own category. Jordan was a one man wrecking crew against the Lions. Jordan batted balls like he was Deandre Jordan, stopped running backs Spiderman style, and by tossing an NFL offensive tackle into the quarterback he proved he can bowl like Earl Anthony too (yes, I used google). Jordan dominated the beginning, the middle, and when it looked like the Saints might improbably choke away a 45-10 lead he ensured they would not Falcon by sealing the game with a deflected pass that he caught in the end zone for the game sealing TD.
The Saints don’t have great linebackers, they don’t even have one, but they have average linebackers who play smart. Sometimes that is all you need. Klein did a great job of keeping the defense aligned and filling in where he was needed, Teo played fine, but the reason the linebackers got an above average grade was because the man who I feared would be their biggest weakness had himself a DAY. Craig Robertson was a tackling machine, forced a fumble (which for once a Saint recovered because he grabbed it), and was for at least this game a playmaker in the front 7. The Saints haven’t had a lot of those the last few years, and he deserves credit for being one.
This grade would have been a B+, but Marcus Williams took a terrible angle on Golden Tate’s long TD catch, and Rafael Bush made an absolutely terrible decision on the same play to try to strip the ball instead of just pushing Tate out of bounds. Other than that play, and a couple of other minor moments the Saints safety group played some lights out football and did a great job of reducing the options that were available to Matthew Stafford through the air. Vonn Bell played a very solid game, Kenny Vacarro had another interception and played largely lights out, and Marcus Williams did a good job of helping to eliminate big plays over the top which is something Stafford is always dangerous for. The big play dropped their grade a bit, but they played well.
Ken Crawley slipped on his tackle attempt on Tate’s long TD, and he didn’t play the ball perfectly on the long TD, other than that the ‘Crawley Coffin’ was in full effect. Crawley has come out, and if he keeps playing the way he has been he has straight up stolen PJ Williams job. The Saints pass rush, other than Cam, is decent, but they aren’t great. The safeties and linebackers are playing well, but they aren’t changing games, the revival of the Saints defense has been almost entirely because the cornerback play has been night and day different from the first two weeks. The guy who is most responsible for the turnaround in the secondary is Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore is a rookie corner and most of the time that means he’s going to have some major struggles as a rookie, but that isn’t what has happened. Lattimore has demonstrated the incredible cover skills that had many putting him as a top-5 talent in last year’s draft. Somehow teams let him fall to 11 and because of that the Saints have acquired one of the most talented corners to come out in years and Lattimore is helping to turn the Saints greatest weakness the last few years…into their greatest asset. The Saints corners are young, hungry, and getting more confident by the week.
Dennis Allen has done a great job of using multiple fronts, creative blitzes, and leveraging his secondaries coverage skills to eliminate big plays down the field and give the Saint’s young playmakers chances to make plays. The Saints have a lot more young talent than in years past, but they still have holes on defense from a talent perspective. What Allen has done is design a defense that tries to accentuate their strengths, without putting their weakness (speed in the front 7) under more pressure than necessary. Sometimes its not about creating the greatest gameplan of all time, sometimes its just about doing the best job possible with what you have available. Allen is doing that.