For the past three weeks, the New Orleans Saints’ defense has been carrying the offense.
Weird. It’s been the other way around for most of the last six years. It wasn’t that long ago that the Saints simultaneously had the best offense and worst defense in the league.
Of course, the situation right now is not nearly that extreme. The Saints boast one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, led by a legendary QB-HC duo in Drew Brees and Sean Payton. They’re putting up 3.35 points per drive — the highest mark in the league. Michael Thomas is enjoying one of the greatest seasons for a wide receiver in franchise history, forming a three-headed-monster with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, the league’s best running back duo. However, In the past three games against the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Panthers, the offense has been mediocre. Why? It’s not entirely clear.
Maybe it’s because they lack a clear #2 option behind Thomas, as other receivers haven’t recently able to consistently gain separation while Thomas is double teamed. Maybe it’s because the entire offensive line has been noticeably worse since left tackle Terron Armstead went down. Maybe it’s just a normal slump worsened by the fact that all three games were on the road in outdoor stadiums. (That is no longer a problem. Assuming they hold onto the #1 seed, the Saints won’t play another game outside of a dome until next season. That includes the postseason.)
Regardless of the reason for the offensive woes, the defense has stepped up to the plate. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s unit has allowed just 12.3 points per game over the last 6 weeks, the best figure in the league. How?
The Acquisition of Eli Apple
In mid-October, rumors were swirling about Arizona Cardinals All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. He was on the trade block and the Saints wanted him. They needed his elite presence in a secondary that was playing extremely poorly. Ultimately, the price was too high and they settled with New York Giants cornerback Eli Apple.
Apple was a controversial figure in New York. In December 2017, All-Pro safety Landon Collins was asked what changes he would make to the Giants’ struggling secondary. “There is only one corner who needs to grow up and we all know who that is,” Collins said, per Jordan Raanan of ESPN. “That would be the only person I would change out of our secondary group. […] That first pick … he’s a cancer.” Apple also often struggled on the field with the Giants. As a result of both factors, Apple was on the trade block for a while. The Giants were happy to exchange him for a 4th round pick and a 7th round pick from the Saints. The Saints loved the deal as well — he may not be Patrick Peterson, but he’s 5 years younger than Peterson. he was also teammates with fellow defensive starters Vonn Bell and Marshon Lattimore. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State team that won the National Championship. Maybe their existing chemistry would come in handy.
Eight weeks later, it’s clear that the Saints got a steal.
|Before Trade for Eli Apple||After Trade for Eli Apple|
|Points Allowed Per Game||27.2||16.1|
|Passing Yards Allowed Per Game||293.7||239.1|
|Yards Allowed Per Pass Attempt||8.3||6.8|
|Completion Percentage Allowed||69.0%||66.4%|
|Passer Rating Allowed||112.2||88.5|
Since Apple’s Week 8 debut in Minnesota, the defense has been playing at a different level. Maybe Apple was a “cancer” on the Giants. Or maybe he was the scapegoat. The Saints’ secondary is clicking better than ever thanks to the chemistry boost that he has provided. Marshon Lattimore was already playing at an elite level as starting cornerback, but the question was if the other players could step up. P.J. Williams, Marcus Williams, and Vonn Bell have all played much better with Apple on the field.
The Vikings are planning a pick play on the left side to get Kyle Rudolph open in the middle. The leftmost receiver (Laquon Treadwell) tries to block Vonn Bell (#24) from reaching Rudolph, but Bell is able to stick to him and force the incompletion. It’s a perfectly defended play by the Saints, forcing a 4th and goal situation.
P.J. Williams is starting in the slot for the Saints after being drafted in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. One of his biggest strengths coming out of college was his great tackling ability, an important skill for a slot corner. This third down open field tackle after Goff hits a receiver in the flat is a perfect display of Williams’ tackling. With the Rams down by just 3 with 6 minutes to go, a first down could have changed the course of the game. This is a big-time play.
Vonn Bell had a great game against the Panthers. He recorded a sack and a game-changing forced fumble. On this play, he added a pass defense to his stat line. On a 3rd and 1 situation, a completion on the crossing route would mean that the defense stays on the field. Bell forces the incompletion and the Panthers proceed to punt it back to the Saints.
This is what we call a “coverage sack.” It’s when the pass coverage on a play is so good that a QB holds the ball for a long time and is eventually brought down as a result. The Saints only had 3 pass rushers on this play and Dalton had plenty of time to throw, but they still recorded the sack. This is how you know that a secondary is playing extremely well.
The Emergence of Sheldon Rankins and Co.
In the 2016 NFL Draft, the Saints drafted defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins with the 12th overall pick. While he was a solid player for the past two years, he’s truly broken out this season. Rankins is having an All-Pro caliber season, as he has 8.0 sacks so far, which is the 5th most in the league for defensive tackles.
On this 3rd down, the Saints send three men on the pass rush. Before Danny Isidora (#63, left guard) is able to help Pat Elflein (#65, center) with Rankins, it’s too late. With one quick shove, Rankins sends Elflein back 5 yards, resulting in a swift sack to force a punt.
This sheer physicality is a threat to anybody who tries to block him. However, he’s a matchup nightmare because he doesn’t just dominate with his brute strength; Rankins’ agility is equally effective.
This compilation of Rankins’ deadly spin moves should be frightening for interior offensive linemen. That’s a 300-pound man. He can push you like a toy or utilize the most effective spin move we’ve seen from a defensive tackle in recent memory.
Rankins’ numbers should be even more impressive when you consider that he’s splitting stats with Cameron Jordan. Jordan only one less sack than he had last year when he earned First-team All-Pro honors. He’s already matched his 2017 total for tackles for a loss (17) with two games left in the 2018 season. Cameron Jordan shows off what makes him as good as any pass-rusher in the NFL. He’s being held by La’el Collins (which is what the flag was for) and still manages to get to Dak Prescott and force the fumble which the Saints recovered. With under 3 minutes to go and the Cowboys up by 3 inside the 10-yard line, the Saints needed to make a play. How many players do you know who can record a strip sack while being locked in a chokehold? This defense isn’t putting up empty numbers. These are game-changing plays.
A lesser-known player who has also been playing exceptionally is David Onyemata. Rankins and Onyemata are the top rated interior defensive linemen duo by Pro Football Focus this year. Onyemata and Okafor both have 4 sacks apiece this season. In total, the Saints’ defense has recorded 45 sacks this year, the 4th most in the NFL
Onyemata (#93) channels his inner-Rankins on this play, pushing the left guard so far backward that he hits quarterback Dak Prescott, forcing the ball loose. He literally pushed the offensive linemen into the quarterback to force a fumble. The Saints had 7 sacks against the Cowboys in this game.
Demario Davis Commands an Elite Run Defense
As a member of the New York Jets last year, inside linebacker Demario Davis finished with a career-high five sacks. His 135 combined tackles were the 6th most in the league. He earned a grade of 87.3 from Pro Football Focus, the 8th highest score for a linebacker last year. Going into free agency, Davis was the consensus top inside linebacker available. Naturally, he garnered interest from multiple teams. The Saints ended up signing Davis to a three-year, $24 million contract. So far, it’s looking like the Saints’ best free-agent signing in a long time.
The Saints boast a top-3 run defense in yards per carry and Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. They’ve thrived against the best running backs in the game (Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley). It’s been the one constant for the Saints. Since Week 1, the run defense has been one of the best in the league. A major factor for this change is the addition of Demario Davis and the improvement of players like Alex Anzalone.
Demario Davis has the highest run defense grade (90.6) in the NFL among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. Alex Anzalone has the 13th highest grade for a linebacker in the NFL. After a slow rookie campaign and a slow start to this season, this is more than the Saints could have hoped for from the 10th linebacker drafted in the 2017 NFL Draft. Their elite performance has transformed the Saints’ run defense into a stout unit.
|Yards Allowed Per Carry||League Rank|
On this play, the Saints’ defense doesn’t fall for the fake jet-sweep to the opposite side of the field. Demario Davis immediately recognizes the play and shoots past the center to tackle Gurley for a loss of 1 yard.
Carolina runs a play-action screen on this play to Christian McCaffrey, who has had a phenomenal season thus far. However, Anzalone reads the play before it happens and is able to lay the boom on McCaffrey for the huge loss of yards.
The Cowboys run an outside run, but Sheldon Rankins is able to outrun Ezekiel Elliott and bring him down for a loss of yards. That’s a 300-pound defensive tackle outrunning a First-team All-Pro running back. This is supposed to be something that happens in Madden that makes you smash your controller. “Why is a defensive tackle chasing down my 99 overall running back in the open field?!” Because he’s an athletic freak. Rankins run-stop percentage of 19.2% is the 2nd highest in the NFL, no doubt contributing to the team’s improvement in defending against the run.
Davis and Anzalone have also been excellent when rushing the quarterback from the inside linebacker position.
Both of these blitzes are perfectly engineered by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Anzalone and Davis are both very well suited for this role, as their quick acceleration allows them to fly through the middle untouched. Davis actually had a sack on the same type of blitz against the Panthers earlier in the game. I opted to show this play because even though it’s not a sack, it’s on a crucial late-game 4th down. Allen elects to send the pressure which results in Davis forcing Newton to pass it while uncomfortable. Quarterbacks can tell when they’re about to get hit and it affects them. If Davis didn’t get to Newton, that’s a first down and the drive stays alive.
If their offense was playing like it was midseason, the Saints would be the scariest team we’ve seen in years. Even though the offense may have slowed down, their defense is single-handedly winning games. If Sean Payton can get the offense back on track, this team epitomizes the word “unstoppable.” Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland have done a phenomenal job of building the most well-rounded roster in the NFL, but now it’s time for the Saints to finish the job.
As Mark Ingram said, they haven’t accomplished anything yet.
Image Source: Derick E. Hingle / USA TODAY Sports
Video Source: The Checkdown, Pro Football Focus