When the Saints started this season with back-to-back losses, giving up an average of 32.5 points per game, it was easy to chalk 2017 up as more of the same. With a defense still mired in futility for the better part of the last decade, there was little reason to believe this year would be any different.
In Week 3 though, a switch. The seemingly hapless Saints defense went into Carolina and held the Panthers to only 13 points. Then they shut out the Dolphins in London. And finally this past week, they scored as many touchdowns on defense (3) as the Lions scored on offense. It’s been one of the most head-scratching turnarounds in this early season. Looking at the talent on this roster though, and the advanced stats on how they’ve played the last three games, it’s unlikely they ever revert to the dismal form Saints fans have come to expect.
The biggest problem with the Saints defense since they won Super Bowl XLIV is that when things go bad, they go completely off the rails. Year in and year out, they play an insanely aggressive brand of football that results in big plays far more often than it does turnovers. Here is their rank since 2009 in PFF’s overall team pass-coverage grade:
Four out of the last five seasons they’ve been in the bottom-two in the entire NFL. That’s difficult to do. Not so surprisingly, that 2013 season where Keenan Lewis was at the top of his game and Kenny Vaccaro hadn’t yet gotten injured was the last time the Saints won a playoff game.
Through the first two weeks of this season, the Saints were dead last once again in our coverage metric. On throws targeted 10-plus yards down the field, they allowed a completion percentage of 78.2, yielded 20.3 yards per attempt, and opposing quarterbacks had a perfect 158.3 passer rating on those throws. It was beyond a mess.
At that point in time, they were playing almost exclusively man coverage. A majority (57.1 percent) of their defensive snaps that week came in man, the second-highest rate in the NFL over the first two weeks. While man coverage has its advantages, in the end it comes down to talent level. If your corners aren’t better than the other team’s receivers, chances are it’s going to end badly for your defense. And end badly it did for the Saints. De’Vante Harris and P.J. Williams had the fifth- and sixth-most yards per coverage snap allowed, respectively, in the entire NFL over those first two weeks.
Three big changes have occurred since then, though. They stopped playing nearly as much man coverage; Ken Crawley came back healthy in Week 3 as their No. 2 cornerback; and they started blitzing like crazy. The man-coverage rate they were playing over the first two weeks of the season was simply unsustainable, especially with two of their top three cornerbacks out. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen finally realized that and they’ve toned the man coverage back to 41.8 percent of their snaps the past three weeks. That doesn’t mean they are any less aggressive though, as they went from blitzing on only 28 percent of their snaps the first two game, to over 50 percent the last three. The result has been far fewer double teams on guys like pass-rusher Cameron Jordan and in turn far more pressure. They are pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 38.8 percent of their dropbacks the past three games compared to only 28 percent the first two weeks (league average is 34.7 percent). That’s a huge leap.
All that pressure wouldn’t matter though if they didn’t have corners on the back end to execute. Playing zone doesn’t turn a bad corner into a good one, but rather it can mask deficiencies such that big mistakes don’t necessarily lead to big plays. What Crawley has done these past few weeks in only his second year after being an undrafted free agent has been nothing short of remarkable. He hasn’t allowed more than 50 percent of his targets to become completions in any game this year. He already has three pass breakups and an interception in three games.
At the end of the day though, the single biggest reason this defense isn’t an aberration, and why it’s a different defense from years past, is their rookie first-round pick. The effects of a No. 1 cornerback aren’t as obvious on television as that of, say, J.J. Watt. When Watt slips past a guard and barrels toward a QB, the footage gets replayed from every angle as the announcers gush. When a top cornerback sits perfectly on a double move and forces the quarterback to hold the ball an extra half second to get to his next read, there’s no 30-second montage. It likely won’t even get mentioned. Yet the effects are similar.
That is what Marshon Lattimore has brought to the Saints defense that it hasn’t had since Keenan Lewis’s first year in New Orleans back in 2013. The rookie cornerback has been targeted 19 times this season. The result of those targets is in the chart below:
Those are legitimate No. 1 corner numbers, and out of this world for a rookie. And it’s come against a slate of quarterbacks that includes Tom Brady, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford.
After three straight games of dominance, it’s safe to say the Saints’ defense isn’t a fluke. This is a team that can generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and now has the back end to actually execute the hyperaggressive coverages for which the Saints’ defense is known. The Saints have their first legitimate defense since 2013 and the rest of the NFC should be afraid.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.