The last time the New Orleans Saints looked anything like a contender was the 2013 season, when they went 11-5 and beat Philadelphia in a wild-card game before falling to the eventual champion Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.
That year, the Saints were a well-balanced squad that featured an offense run by Drew Brees and a stout defense led by 24-year-old Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) and 25-year-old Junior Galette (12 sacks). The 2013 Saints ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per game and also fourth in yards allowed per game.
When it comes to the Saints, you have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Brees. So it makes sense that when they failed to log a winning record over the ensuing three seasons, it was the defense that lost its way, ranking 31st, 31st and 27th in yards allowed per game. Now the Saints are back and sitting at 11-4, and the defense has returned to respectability, ranking 15th in yards allowed per game and tied for eighth in points allowed.
But how good is this defense, and is it talented enough to take the Saints on a deep postseason run? Let’s take a look at some positive signs, as well as some potential trouble spots.
Areas of concern
Statistically, the Saints defense looks merely solid and is not particularly dominant in any area. Nothing really jumps out at you. They’re tied for 20th in yards per play (5.4) allowed and tied for 11th in turnovers (22). They’re 14th in first downs allowed, 12th in scoring percentage allowed and ninth in turnover percentage.
On the ground, they allow 4.4 yards per carry, which is tied for an unimpressive 27th. Furthermore, as good as Jordan has been in his age-28 season, compiling 12 sacks and 44 solo tackles, the Saints haven’t had a front seven guy they can consistently rely on to rack up tackles, which probably explains the high yards-per-carry number. In fact, they don’t have a single defender with 50 or more solo tackles, and their top three tacklers – Marcus Williams (49), Vonn Bell (48) and Kenny Vaccaro (47) are all defensive backs. (Vaccaro is done for the season with a groin injury). That’s not a good sign.
By comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars have five players with at least 50 tackles, and their top two are linebackers Telvin Smith (69) and Myles Jack (64).
In addition to this, the Saints’ depth is being challenged, as in addition to the absence of Vaccaro, the Saints are also playing without starters A.J. Klein and Alex Okafor, key reserve Alex Anzalone and backup corner Delvin Breaux. So they don’t have a lot of room for error in the health department.
Things to like
OK enough negative stuff, let’s talk about the good things. While the rush defense hasn’t been fantastic, it has been better of late. Their performance this weekend against the Falcons, in which they held stud running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to a combined 48 yards on 17 carries (2.8 yards per carry) was nothing short of stunning, and they haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Washington’s Samaje Perine (117) in Week 11.
And the pass defense has been consistently good, if not entirely dominant. Opposing quarterbacks have an 81.0 passer rating, which is the ninth-lowest mark in the NFL, and the Saints’ sack total of 40 is tied for the sixth-most in the league.
Also, despite all the injuries, the Saints are proving to be much more than just the Cameron Jordan show. While Jordan is having a season that could net him the Defensive Player of the Year award, he’s getting a fair amount of help.
Linebacker Manti Te’o, 26, is playing perhaps the best football of his career and Craig Robertson, who was brilliant against Atlanta, has been increasingly active as the season wears on. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who the Saints snagged out of Ohio State with the No. 11 pick in the draft last spring, leads the team in both interceptions (five) and passes defended (17). Fellow rookie Marcus Williams, a second rounder out of Utah, has two interceptions and leads the team in tackles from his free safety position.
All of the production from young players is promising, as the Saints can only expect them to get better with more seasoning.
This Saints defense isn’t as good as it was four years ago, but the improvement over the last couple of seasons is nonetheless impressive. It also compares favorably statistically to the 2009 championship team, which had a defense that ranked 25th in yards per game allowed and 20th in points allowed. That squad, though, had the advantage of a much younger Brees running the NFL’s top-scoring offense. They could simply outscore foes. Unfortunately, this squad doesn’t have that luxury, and it’s a much greener unit.
For the Saints to make a deep run in the playoffs, they’ll need Jordan to continue to play at an elite level, they’ll need to avoid further injuries, and they’ll need their young talent to continue to develop quickly. On top of all that, the Saints will have to continue to be opportunistic. They can’t expect to get two goal-line stands and a “butt pick” every week like they did against the Falcons, but they will have to find ways to make their own breaks.
This unit is probably a year away from being elite, but they’re heading that direction.