The New Orleans Saints lost again Sunday, this time to the New England Patriots, and their defense was once again shredded in the process.
It’s the fourth time during the past five seasons Coach Sean Payton has seen his team lose the first two games of the season, but this start has been the worst of that group in terms of point differential, with the Saints losing by a combined score of 65-39. Much of the blame falls squarely on the defense, which is off to a wretched start and is on pace to be historically bad.
In Week 1, the Saints gave up 29 points and 470 yards to the Minnesota Vikings, and on Sunday they allowed 36 points and 555 yards to the Patriots. The Saints are not only allowing opponents to sustain drives — 57.7 percent conversion on third downs while forcing a three-and-out just one out of every nine drives — they are yielding points on more than two-thirds of possessions, making this defense not just bad, but historically bad.
Since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams, there have been 512 team seasons played in the NFL. When comparing the 2017 Saints to other performances during the first two weeks of a campaign, this year’s squad in New Orleans ranks:
- 503rd for plays allowed per drive (7.1)
- 504th for percentage of drives forced to go three-and-out (10.5 percent)
- 509th for rate of opposing drives that result in a first down or touchdown (80.6 percent)
- 510th for points allowed per drive (3.4)
- 510th for yards allowed per play (7.6)
- 511th for yards allowed per game (512.5)
- 512th for rate of scoring plays allowed per drive (68.4 percent)
There are some excuses. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has seven new starters on defense — linebackers A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone, nose tackle Tyeler Davison, defensive end Alex Okafor, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. This is in addition to second-year safety Vonn Bell and cornerback P.J. Williams, who played just two games in 2016. Roster turnover is difficult under ideal circumstances, let alone on a defense that allowed the second-most net yards per pass (7.2) and the highest points per drive (2.43) last season. But the players just aren’t getting it done.
Klein is the sixth-worst linebacker overall this season and the third-worst in coverage, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Anzalone ranks 30th out of 48. Davison’s pass-rushing ability ranks 39th out of 44 qualified players at the position. Williams has allowed the second-most yards per snap in coverage overall (2.5) and the most when tasked with covering the slot receiver (3.7). Bell has received negative grades for his inability to stop the run and for his poor performance in pass coverage. Holdover safety Kenny Vaccaro, who has been with the Saints since 2013, isn’t providing much veteran help. He was benched Sunday and he has also allowed the second-most yards per snap in coverage (1.8) at the position.
Defensive woes of this degree put an obvious burden on the offense, necessitating more points and successful drives to come away with a win. So far, quarterback Drew Brees has done what he can. He leads the league’s fourth most-efficient offense in terms of scoring, generating an above-average points per drive (2.17) with a below-average rate of drives going three-and-out. But it probably won’t be enough to get the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
|2017||Points per drive||Percentage of drives with a touchdown or field goal||Percentage of drives that go three-and-out|
In 2002, the Kansas City Chiefs allowed the highest rate of scoring plays per drive by their opponents (39.6 percent) but countered with the most efficient offense (42.7 percent). The result? An 8-8 season. The 2004 Vikings coupled the league’s worst defense with the fifth-best offense and got the same results at .500. The 2008 Denver Broncos, the worst defense that year, rode the eighth-best offense to an 8-8 record as well. Last year’s Saints had the second-best offense in terms of scoring drives and finished 7-9.
There’s only so much a high-end offense can do. And it can’t take a team to the postseason without help, which means New Orleans may be squandering Brees’s final seasons if it can’t fix its defense forthwith.
The bright side for New Orleans is that it gets easier from Week 3. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Saints have the ninth-easiest schedule in terms of their opponent’s overall efficiency on offense, with just three remaining games — Week 7 in Green Bay against the Packers and the home-and-home series against the Atlanta Falcons in Weeks 14 and 16 — against teams in the top 10 for Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.
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