There’s an old saying that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. For many, it’s been tough to shake the image of a porous Saints defense getting torched by the Buccaneers in the team’s Week 1 loss, surrendering 529 yards and 48 points in a shocking display of ineptitude. New Orleans obviously rebounded from that dud with a vindicating 28-14 win last Sunday against Tampa Bay. The victory pushed the Saints to 11-2 and clinched them their second consecutive NFC South title—but it’s been Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and the team’s incredibly explosive offense, not the defense, that’s gotten most of the credit along the way.
And look, that makes sense: Apart from about six quarters, the Saints’ offense has been a visually stunning combination of precise passing and powerful running. New Orleans is second in points per game (34.4) and fourth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA; Brees is on pace to post career bests in completion percentage (an NFL-high 75.7), passer rating (a league-best 120.8), and adjusted yards per attempt (9.4). The ground game behind Kamara and Mark Ingram has been dominant with a league-best 21 rushing touchdowns.
But while we’ve all focused on the offense, we’ve glossed over the fact that the Saints defense has come alive at just the right time. Dennis Allen’s defensive unit has started to carry its weight in the second half of the year, and is taking pressure off the offense by getting after the quarterback with abandon, creating turnovers in bunches, and keeping opponents off the scoreboard. Led by pass rusher Cameron Jordan, a disruptive interior defensive line, and a playmaking secondary, New Orleans’ defensive revival gives this team the type of balance its going to need for a deep postseason run.
The Saints, who rank eighth in weighted defensive DVOA (a metric that accounts not just for strength of opponent but accounts more heavily for how a team’s played in recent games), are quietly on a tear through the past five weeks. In that stretch, they’ve given up an average of just 13.0 points per game (first), surrendered an 80.3 opponent passer rating (sixth) and eight opponent touchdowns (second), and racked up an astounding 24 sacks (first) and 12 takeaways (tied for second). After struggling to defend on third downs early in the year, New Orleans has turned up the pressure and made great strides in that crucial area. Since Week 10, the Saints have allowed first downs on 35.6 percent of third-down plays—tied for 10th-best—and neutralized opposing quarterbacks with a league-high 13 sacks and four forced fumbles in those situations.
That’s a far cry from what we saw early in the year. In their first three games, the Saints defense looked nothing like the dominant, ballhawking group from 2017. In fact, they seemed to have reverted back to something resembling the laughing-stock units we saw in New Orleans from 2014 to 2016 (each of which finished no higher than 31st in defensive DVOA). In the first three weeks, the Saints gave up an average of 34.3 points per game (dead last) and surrendered a 141.7 passer rating (also last) and 13 touchdowns (last) while grabbing just one takeaway (tied for last) and six sacks (tied for 24th). The offense carried New Orleans to a 2-1 start, sure, but any semblance of the balance the team achieved last season appeared to be gone.
In their 33-18 Week 4 win against the Giants, though, Allen’s unit managed to get themselves off the ropes and back into the fight. The Saints defense regrouped and gradually began to rediscover their 2017 mojo, transforming from what looked to be a total liability to a pillar of the team’s playoff race and potential Super Bowl run.
The team’s defensive turnaround all starts with the talent-packed defensive line, which is not only the foundation of one of the top run-defending groups in the NFL but has upped the ante in the pass rush department during the past month-plus. Star defensive end Cameron Jordan has been the biggest catalyst and is wreaking havoc off the edge in the New Orleans scheme. Since Week 10, Jordan has notched 7.0 sacks (first in the NFL), nine tackles for a loss (first), 10 quarterback hits (tied for third), 25 pressures (third among all defensive linemen), one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Cameron mixes an elite first step with plenty of power to get through block attempts:
He’s light on his feet, too, and converts speed to power with effective hump moves or blink-and-you-miss-it spin moves to get to the quarterback.
Jordan’s more than just a pass rusher, though, and consistently makes plays in the backfield with a combination of strength, instincts, and raw athleticism.
Jordan’s gotten plenty of help, and with defensive tackles Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, and edge rushers Alex Okafor and rookie Marcus Davenport lining up next to him, the Saints might have the most underrated defensive front in the entire league. Rankins has been a force this year and has been on a similar five-week tear as Jordan. Since Week 10, the third-year former first-rounder has tallied 19 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks tied for 13th among all defensive linemen and tied for sixth among interior linemen. Rankins boasts a dangerous combination of power and quickness, and uses light feet and hand-fighting to slice past offensive linemen—or go right through them.
Like Jordan, Rankins has the athleticism to string plays out toward the sideline. In Week 13 against the Cowboys, he chased down Ezekiel Elliott and tackled him for a loss.
Third-year pro David Onyemata has made a big impact next to Rankins. The former fourth-rounder has chipped in an additional 13 pressures in the past five games, and shows off a rare blend of size and explosiveness from the middle of the Saints’ defensive line. Like Rankins, Onyemata can get past offensive linemen in a number of ways, whether that means bull-rushing them into the pocket or swim-moving past them.
Along with Okafor and Davenport (who have contributed another 19 pressures in the last five weeks), this Saints line can get after the quarterback or into the backfield from just about every angle. Those guys also help keep the team’s steady linebacker trio of Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein clean, allowing them to flow to the football or bring pressure through the A and B gaps.
In the secondary, New Orleans has gotten back to the type of top-tier play we saw last season. After calling the team’s defensive performance “embarrassing” following their Week 2 win against the Browns, reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore shrugged off a sluggish start and stepped up his game. In the team’s red-hot five-game stretch, Lattimore has given up just 15 catches on 187 coverage snaps, per PFF, surrendering zero touchdowns with two picks for a 55.2 passer rating (eighth best in that stretch). He’s back to playing like the reliable no. 1 corner he was as a rookie.
Third-year pro P.J. Williams, who was pressed into action in the slot following free-agent acquisition Patrick Robinson’s season-ending ankle injury, has made a few big plays, including a sack in Week 12 against the Falcons. The team’s decision to send 2019 fourth-round and 2020 seventh-round draft picks to the Giants for second-year pro Eli Apple has begun to pay off. Apple has been solid in the past five weeks, allowing just one touchdown on 190 coverage snaps while registering one interception for a 71.2 opponent passer rating allowed. Add in the steady play from safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell, and the Saints’ secondary is back to playing to its potential.
Put it all together, and this Saints defense hasn’t just improved, but it’s shown that it’s capable of propping up the typically powerful offensive counterparts when the team really needs it. In New Orleans’ 13-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 13, Brees and Co. stumbled—posting just 176 yards of offense, their worst performance of the season—but the Saints’ stingy defense kept them in the game throughout, even giving the offense the chance to win the game by creating a crucial sack-fumble (the one seen above) at the 2:45 mark of the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the offense squandered that opportunity when Brees was picked off two plays later.
Then, last week against the Buccaneers, when the offense again struggled to gain momentum, the Saints defense stepped up. After going into halftime trailing 14-3, the New Orleans defense locked things down in the second half to hold the high-flying Tampa Bay offense to just 83 yards while sacking Jameis Winston three times and intercepting him once. Winston finished the second half with a 27.3 passer rating and the Saints shut the Bucs out in the final two frames, giving Brees and team’s offense the breathing room they needed to jumpstart their engine. They did just that: The Saints finally got things rolling and scored on their final four drives to finish the game on a 25-0 run.
With a pair of matchups against the still-dangerous Panthers and an unpredictable but explosive Steelers team left on its schedule, the New Orleans defense faces a tough test in its final three games. If they can prove this five-game hot-streak is for real, the Saints will be heading into the postseason with a championship formula. Their newfound balance gives New Orleans a much-needed extra layer of insurance against the inevitable performance swings. If the defense falters, well, the Saints still have Brees to pick them up and win in a shootout―like we saw in the team’s thrilling 45-35 win against the Rams in Week 9. But, as they showed in the division-sealing win against the Bucs on Sunday, if the offense has an off day, the defense finally looks capable of shouldering a heavy load and leading this team to a win.