This has been one of the more surprising NFL seasons to date, both on a player performance level and in light of the way the playoffs seem to be shaking out. Not many would have predicted after last season that Dallas, Green Bay and Seattle would fail to make the postseason in 2017, but although injuries have decimated all three teams, we appear to be headed that way. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz are top-10 quarterbacks after struggling last season, Adam Thielen is a household name, and DeMarcus Lawrence has risen from the dead to post 13.5 sacks and be a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Of course, we haven’t even mentioned the Rams being one of the best teams in the NFL, the Vikings going 11-3 without either of their top two quarterbacks, or the Jaguars having the best defense in the league, but perhaps none of those are as surprising as the Saints’ defensive turnaround. The laughingstock of the NFL for most of Drew Brees’ tenure in New Orleans, the Saints surrendered the sixth-most yards per game and the second-most points per game last season, almost single-handedly leading the team to a 7-9 record despite having one of the best offenses in the league.
The pass defense was specifically awful, finishing dead last in the NFL by giving up 273 yards per game through the air, and allowing almost eight yards per attempt. The talent level in the secondary was a huge concern, but the Saints’ problems were compounded by the fact that they didn’t get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, resulting in only 30 sacks last season, the sixth-lowest mark in the NFL.
A lot can change in a year when a team drafts brilliantly and nabs quality players from other squads around the league, which is exactly what the Saints did. Additions such as defensive end Alex Okafor and cornerback Ken Crawley have been huge upgrades at positions that desperately need them, and draft picks Marcus Williams and Trey Hendrickson have been vital contributors as well.
But none of the new players can hold a candle to what Marshon Lattimore has done for the Saints, entering the league as the tenth pick and playing at a higher level than any cornerback in football as a rookie. Lattimore has been simply outstanding, locking down top threats for different teams each week and continuing to play an aggressive brand of football that has helped free up the rest of the Saints’ defense.
Lattimore’s statistical impact has been huge, coming up with 44 tackles, 13 passes defensed, a forced fumble and four interceptions in 11 games, including one that was returned for a touchdown. His abilities to play press man, find the football down the field, and compete at the catch point are elite, and it is rare to find that combination of high-end traits in a cornerback. What is even more rare is to find a cover corner who is also an excellent mental processor in zone coverage and an extremely willing tackler in run support. Before missing a few games with an injury, Lattimore was actually leading the Saints in solo tackles a couple weeks ago, and has missed just two stops all season after missing none in his final year at Ohio State.
While Lattimore has the chance to be a special NFL player, Cameron Jordan already is, and has been for quite awhile. Although I’m sure he’s glad the days of carrying the Saints’ defense as its lone good player appear to be over, he has still put the team on his back with plenty of outstanding performances this season. Jordan has been nearly flawless against the run, rarely getting displaced at the point of attack and playing better in space than I’ve ever seen him play. His 10 sacks lead the team, and Jordan has achieved that production despite offenses still focusing their protections to slow him down. He’s also managed to knock down 12 passes this season, an absolutely ridiculous number for a defensive lineman.
Cameron Jordan has 12 passes defensed this season.
That's more than Xavier Rhodes, Johnathan Joseph, Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Harris, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) December 19, 2017
It’s taken a lot of improvements to turn around the Saints’ defense, but the two key catalysts have undoubtedly been Lattimore and Jordan. The combination of young and old blood has invigorated the Saints to new highs, currently ranked in the top 10 in passing yards allowed per game and points allowed per game, and just outside the top 10 in total yards per game (11th). That’s a far cry from a group that ranked near the bottom of the league in most major defensive categories each of the past three seasons.
Choosing an MVP between the two of them is nearly impossible, but logically it makes sense to choose Lattimore if forced to do so. After all, Jordan has been there for years attempting to turn this group around, and if it weren’t for Lattimore locking down the top receiving threat of opposing teams week after week, how good would the Saints’ defense be? The Saints played the Panthers twice and won without Lattimore, but that’s a run-based defense without a premier offensive weapon or passing attack. Against the Rams, Jared Goff threw for over 350 yards and two scores in a 26-20 Los Angeles victory over the Lattimore-less Saints. Without him, the pass defense has major holes.
Feels like throwing at Marshon Lattimore might not be wise pic.twitter.com/QOrNeh1IW1
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 17, 2017
That isn’t to take away from anything Jordan’s done — the defensive end has had his best pro season and been monumental to the Saints’ success, both on and off the field. But Lattimore is giving the Saints’ defense something it hasn’t had since Keenan Lewis’s peak season, and perhaps even before that.
As the playoffs near, he’s the guy who can swing a game against other NFC favorites like Goff and his host of weapons, the Falcons and Julio Jones, Minnesota’s two-headed monster of Stefon Diggs and Thielen, or the Eagles’ Nelson Agholor. The Saints still have weaknesses to strengthen and a long way to go in the tough NFC, but the play of Lattimore has made them one of the favorites for a Super Bowl title in two months.