Back at you (finally) with my quarterly review of this year’s defense. I’m going to do my best here to remain calm and rational. We have had a rollercoaster of a season so far with the first two games being the valley and now we’re at a peak. The question is; will be plateau, continue to rise, or take another nosedive? With the next two opponents, we face being very good teams, there’s possibility for another implosion. But there’s also a chance that we maintain the momentum we set before the bye week.
Our defense hasn’t been terrible for two games. Before that, it was a tragedy on turf. In the Saints first two games they allowed 1,025 yards combined against the Vikings and Patriots. Most those yards (777) allowed through the air. They also allowed 32.5 points a game through those two contests. Both totals out them at the bottom of the league. However, during those games the issues were diagnosable. Kenny Vaccaro wasn’t playing well deep, DeVante Harris was a reincarnation of Patrick Robinson and Fred Thomas, no pass rush yet again, etc. So finally, in the game against the Carolina Panthers, those plagues started to get treated. Harris was put back in the order in favor of Ken Crawley who has balled out this season (more below), Vaccaro was shift back into the box where he plays most freely and comfortably, and we started generating pressure in the QB compiling 8 sacks in 2 games. Since the we’ve allowed only 6.5 points including a shutout against the Dolphins. In terms of yardage, the Panthers and Dolphins averaged 237 total yards against the Saints defense and added 4 interceptions as well (3 of which came against the Panthers). So now we’re in high as a fan base and can’t wait to see what goes down tomorrow against the Lions. But first, let’s have a look at some standout individuals.
Cameron Jordan has been the most underrated defensive presence for years. Likely because he’s been attached to some defenses that out up God awful numbers. This year, he’s starting off hot and is leading the charge for this Saints defensive turnaround. Cam has totaled 3 sacks through his first four games which is his best total since 2013 when he started with 4 and finished with 12.5. Look for Cam to put up double digit sacks this season as he’s well on pace. According to PFF Jordan is the second highest EDGE defender behind only Khalil Mack. After week 3, he also lead the league with 8 QB Hurries. Cam’s been really good for a long time, but he might be just about to cross the threshold into greatness.
Alex Okafor/Hau’oli Kikaha are the two guys that tend to handle the responsibility of rushing the passer from the opposite side of Cam Jordan. This has been a missing ingredient for the Saints since Junior Galette was justifiably released from the team a few years ago. Right now, Kikaha and Okafor has combined for 3 sacks, matching Jordan’s total. Essentially meaning that we’re getting production from both side of the defensive line. Okafor has also been a huge boon for the Saints against the run game. The question becomes longevity. Can Kikaha stay healthy? If so, can they continue to produce? Time will tell, but it’s looking up so far.
Al-Quadin Muhammad apparently needs more time but some of us are anxious to see him out there. He had a fantastic preseason totaling 4 sacks in as many games. Though those sacks were against third and fourth string guys, that’s exactly the kind of play you’d want to see against lesser caliber players. Hopefully he gets the hang of things so that we can see how he fairs out on the gridiron soon.
Sheldon Rankins has been practically invisible since the Vikings game. He hasn’t compiled any statistics in the last three games but that doesn’t discount his presence. He’s taking up blockers and playing his roll well, just not getting his mits on anyone just yet. We know he has the capacity to explode being that he logged 4 sacks in 9 games last season. He has been in rotation with Teyler Davison and David Onyemata, but he’s seen nearly 75% of the snaps in the interior middle. Too soon to tell if his lack of production is worrisome, but from what I’ve seen, he’s still serving the greater good out there despite not putting up the pretty statistics.
David Onyemata was one of those draft picks in 2016 that the Saints are famous for. The pick that doesn’t have a ton of experience per se but has a lot of raw talent and potential. Well, when the team lost Nick Fairley to a potentially career-ending heart condition, Onyemata had his number called and he’s made good on it so far. He notched a sack against Miami in week 4 and has done a good job disrupting the middle of the line over the last two games. He’s been playing about 50% of the snaps while rotating with Teyler Davison.
Alex Anzalone had a heart-breaking and season-ending injury to his shoulder early in the Miami game. Before then, he was one of our many standout rookies. While he gave up a few big plays during the Patriots game, he was on course to being a big time steal for the Saints defense. In many ways, I’d say he still is. He’ll have a long term impact on this team if he can stay healthy. We wish him a speedy recovery so he can come back even stronger next season.
A.J. Klein has been a welcome change as the defensive captain. Though he hasn’t been lights out by any mean, he has performed better than the average linebacker in each game except the Patriots game. He added a sack against Miami for good measure as well. He’s been versatile for the Saints defense playing on the strong side as well as in the middle in Nickel packages. He started the year off well with 8 solo tackles and has since produced no more than half that in each of the next three games. While he’s been nothing spectacular, he’s outperformed last year’s productivity in the middle by a long-shot. He’s on pace for 92 combined tackles this year which is respectable for someone playing multiple positions on the second level.
Manti Te’o saw his playtime decrease drastically against Miami when he played only 7 defensive snaps. Previously he had 17, 38, and then 16 before dropping into single digits. After Anzalone’s injury, the Saints played more three-safety looks against the Phins which resulted in less time for Te’o. He didn’t log a single statistic during that game. However, totaling 14 tackles over 78 snaps ain’t too shabby. Worth noting that his lack of numbers is more about our system as it is about his ability. The system that was chosen over the most recent pair of weeks included much more involvement for multiple safeties in lieu of a third LB. Te’o usually doesn’t play in the Nickel packages, and we’ve been living in them.
Craig Robertson is another linebacker that’s hard to evaluate at this moment, but he’s worth mentioning due to the injury to Anzalone. With the rookie out, Robertson has the potential to step in (likely rotating with the newly signed Gerald Hodges) to pick up the weak side. This is a role that he’s comfortable with as he played the first 9 weeks on the weak side in 2016 during which time he notched 4 passes defended and 72 tackles. He should do well if he’s the primary player asked to step in and fill in for Anzalone. Though Gerald Hodges presents some competition, PFF noted him as one of the sleeper free agents that could surprise. He’s very valuable in the run game and present threat as a pass rusher as well. We’ll see what this means, if anything, for Robertson as he’s already proven effective in the system.
Ken Crawley was rated as the top cornerback through week 4 by PFF despite only having played two games. Or you might say, because he’s only played two games. But truth is that he’s been an exciting and refreshing part of the Saints defense. He’s been making play after play throughout the last two games including a fantastic endzone interception early on in the Dolphins games. He also blew up a screen pass against Carolina with a fantastic read. Crawley has yet to give up a reception of greater than 20 yards and, per PFF has, despite being targeted once every 3.9 passing snaps, has only given up 3.7 yards be target. So even though QBs are throwing at him, he’s making the best of it. In those two games, he’s also already defended half the amount of passes he broke up last season. Crawley has been the second-coming of 2015 Delvin Breaux for us so far and we hope he keeps it up.
Marshon Lattimore might not have an interception yet, but there’s no doubt he is playing like a superstar. He’s been fulfilling every bit of expectation had for a first-round draft pick and is even in the ROY conversation. Despite missing the Panthers game due to a concussion sustained in week two, he’s been able to be a major contributor when healthy. He’s often not targeted when on the field and managed to hold Brandin Cooks’ revenge game to a measly 3 yard catch while covering him. As many others have noted, Lattimore made some great plays against the Dolphins including a beautiful strip on Kenny Stills and a great beat on a screen pass that lead to a sack-fumble that unfortunately didn’t end as a takeaway. The tandem of Marshon and Ken have been great through the first quarter. We’ve got a lot to look forward to when Delvin Breaux gets back on the field as well.
P.J. Williams had one of the more impressive takeaways in the Panthers game off of a beautiful read against a slant-flat route combination. Unfortunately for him, he only saw a single defensive snap in place of Lattimore in London. With the Saints focusing on more safeties, it also left out the conventional nickel corner much like the third linebacker as referenced above. However, P.J. did play very well through the first three games despite being burnt to a crisp by Adam Thielen. He totaled 22 tackles through the first three games and added two PBUs as well. It will be interesting to see where he fits in as the cornerback position will shuffle soon.
Kenny Vaccaro was said be on the trading block after week 1 and was then benched in the middle of the week 2 game. All signs started to point to Kenny being on the move, but ultimately the Saints found a better solution: stop asking him to do things he’s not comfortable doing. New Orleans has worked really hard to make Vaccaro a multi-dimensional safety. Which, in many ways, he is but without the added value of a deep defender. During the game against the Panthers Vaccaro was schemed as a box safety with Marcus Williams and sometimes Vonn Bell handling the deep coverage duties. That’s when the defense seemingly found new life. On my Crescent City Clamps article, I mention the success of the three-safety set. During that game, Vaccaro had a pick 6 total tackles and 2 pass breakups. One of those deflections kept the ball alive and ended up in the hands of a diving Marcus Williams, forcing another turnover. Hard to believe that Kenny’s going anywhere as long as he can continue to capitalize on these kinds of opportunities.
Vonn Bell might not be putting up a ton of stats with 13 total tackles and 1 pass defended, but he’s been a contributing factor to the success of the Saints defense these last couple of weeks. When New Orleans plays a three-safety set, Bell is usually brought in to split double-high coverage duties with rookie Marcus Williams or to prowl the box and add run support alongside Kenny Vaccaro. Either way, even though he’s not checking a stat box, he’s been helping to affect the field.
Rafael Bush has always been a solid Special Teams defender but in London got to play 5 snaps on defense which getting involved in some tricky four-safety set action. During two of those instances the Saints came up with a sack, one of which by Bush himself. Bush is known for being a big hitter, much like Vaccaro. His tenacity and energy are always a welcome addition on defense. We’ll see if he gets to be a factor when taking on his former team, the Detroit Lions, tomorrow.
Marcus Williams is yet another standout rookie on this Saints team. He’s totaled 18 tackles with a pass break up, and a gorgeous diving interception. He’s also played consistently in his free safety position, logging tons of snaps. Dennis Allen obviously loves having this guy on the field, and who could blame him? We’re getting a glimpse into that ballhawk reputation he brought out of Utah and we can’t wait to see more. He’s settled down these last couple of games so I’m looking for him to start playing the ball a little more aggressively as his confidence rises.
These next two weeks will be weighty challenges for this defense, playing Detroit at home and then Green Bay in Lambeau. We’ll learn a lot more about them in those games before the competition cools down again.