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In the past years, even as the Saints defense improved in 2017, there’s been a glaring weak spot for opposing offenses to exploit – the TE and pass-catching RB. You’ve heard it time and time again, that this weak spot would be something of concern each week going through the season. However, so far in 2018, the Saints passing defense (one that started off struggling mightily against Wide Receivers) has actually improved against Tight Ends and Running Backs.
This season, the defense was set to face high-level Tight Ends like Jordan Reed, Evan Engram, Greg Olsen, David Njoku, OJ Howard, Kyle Rudolph, and Zach Ertz. Now, in instances like Engram, the Saints got lucky that he missed the game. But regardless, the improvement through the first five games is noticeable. Let’s start by taking a look at previous season totals and then we’ll focus down to the first five games of the season.
You can immediately see improvement in defending against Tight Ends. Allowing 0 TDs and allowing only 44.7% of the yardage allowed in the first five games of 2015. We’ll talk more later about what the Saints specifically have done to help with locking down this position, but first let’s go for a deeper analytics dive. In one of my recent episodes of Locked on Saints, I had the pleasure of welcoming The Athletic’s Deuce Windham on, who always bring the best and freshest information with him. One of the analytics sites he mentioned he really liked was Football Outsiders. So I decided to check them out more seriously than my previous visits.
The chart below lists Football Outsiders’ DVOA or Defensive Value Over Average. This basically gives a percentage to the number of “successful” plays run against a defense be each receiver group. Negative numbers are good for defenses. Average is usually 0.0, so getting as far into the negative as possible is a good thing. Bear in mind that “successful plays” aren’t just about yards and touchdowns. It could simply include a 3-yard reception on a 3rd and 2 which would yield more weight than a 3-yard reception on 1st and 10. Meanwhile, 11 yards grades higher on 1st and 10 then 2nd and 13.
As you can see, the Saints have gone from allowing the greatest number of successful plays to the tight end position in 2015 to allowing 30% less than the league’s average, good for 4th in the league. This essentially means that the Saints are surrendering fewer important plays to the position. We’ll look more in-depth at that in moment, but first let’s look at these metrics for defending against Running Backs.
Though mostly steady in recent years, the defense is among its best performance against receiving backs so far this year. Allowing only five yards more than its best since 2014 and succeeded to keep the pace at only a single touchdown. Just like with Tight Ends, we can expand the scope to look at more than just yards and touchdowns and instead look at successful play percentage allowed.
Now despite matching up pretty steadily in touchdowns and yards, you’ll notice that the Saints have a pretty poor DVOA ranking near the bottom of the league, though somehow better than 2015 and 2016. The trick here is that the Saints have allowed 22 first down receptions to Tight Ends and Running Backs, but 15 of which to Running Backs alone. This swells the percentage because that means that so far 58.7% of catches from the backs have gone for first downs, while only 36.9% of Tight End receptions did. So let’s follow that rabbit and look at first downs, completion percentage and other big play shares.
First, sticking with first downs, you’ll see that the the team has allowed a wealthy percentage of the groups’ receptions to go for first downs this year- 48.9% so far. Second worst since 2015. (51.9%) There are some things to credit regardless though, keeping in mind that 15 of those 22 first downs went to running backs who otherwise haven’t been allowed to make much impact.
Starting with targets and completions, both at a low this year. Some of this has to do with the success of the Wide Receiver positions, yes. But that really only is true for the two divisional match-ups,which is where most of the big chunk plays came against the Saints. Additionally, the Saints have limited explosive plays of 20+ yards allowing only three to the combined positions, two of which to Tight Ends, continuing to limit breakaway plays by the Running Back.
This has been a successful focus by the Saints considering their past history with these two positions. Allowing only a 6.6% big play per catch percentage is much improved from 2015’s 14.8%. A big way the Saints are finding success limiting these positions is by affecting the routes pre-pass. I have two examples below or you, one from each position. The first being my absolute favorite and a bit of an exaggeration of what I’m referring to. But it’s helpful to see. Basically the Saints defense is getting contact with Tight Ends and Running Backs at the line of scrimmage to bump them off of their routes and eliminate the quick outs and flats that often led to one missed tackle to spring for plenty of yards. In both clips, you’ll see Cam Jordan affecting the plays as described.
It’s just a shame that Dennis Allen only rushed three here because Matt Ryan had just over 4 seconds to throw this two-point conversion to Muhammad Sanu. Had the Saints rushed Cam after this “jam” folded into the pass rush, they likely could have gotten to Ryan before Sanu was able to get open, considering the team’s emphasis of getting the QB within 2.5 seconds. Had to do that rushing only three.
Here goes Cam again. Jamming Chris Thompson on his way into the backfield and putting pressure on Alex Smith who, because Thompson was knocked off of his route, didn’t have a safety valve. So he tried to go to the next best thing, which ended up in the hands of Justin Hardee. This was another great example of taking away the safety blanket, often the Tight End or Running Back by knocking them off of the routes before the Quarterback has a chance to dump it off to them. Look for more of this against the Ravens tomorrow who do like to pass out to Buck Allen from the backfield and have four formidable options at Tight End as well. If the Saints can continue to limit productivity from those spots while taking away the deep threat of John Brown, they stand a chance at really shutting down Baltimore’s ability to score and move the ball quickly. They’ll still have to deal with the quick pass option to Snead and Crabtree, but that fits more kindly to the bend but don’t break approach.