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How Special is the 2021 Saints Defense?

The New Orleans Saints defense has been historically great in 2021 and a playoff berth could be just the icing on the cake.
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Head coach Sean Payton and the Black and Gold defense have captained the Saints through the storm and are on the brink of a playoff berth. From being displaced by Hurricanes Ida and Irma, ravaged by COVID-19 multiple times, and starting an NFL record 58 players, New Orleans has been through more than any other franchise during the 2021 NFL season.

“When you go all the way back to the start of the season, it feels like 2 1/2 years ago we were evacuating to Dallas during the hurricane... It doesn't feel like that's part of this season.”

- Saints Head Coach Sean Payton

However, the Saints' season is still alive after securing an 18-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the Caesars Superdome. Last Sunday's win was a microcosm of New Orleans' season so far. A win led by a stout defensive effort while the offense played turnover-free, resulting in ugly winning football.


The offense's struggles are well-documented. New Orleans has started four different quarterbacks for the first time since 1999 and played without eight of its projected 11 starters going into the season last Sunday.

 As a result, the Saints have struggled to move the ball consistently. The offensive unit posts a dismal -.082 expected points added per play (EPA), fifth-worst in the NFL, and the eighth-worst DVOA (-10.1%), which measures an offense's adjusted value compared to the league average.

Even though the offense has endured the perfect storm to hinder any offensive consistency, the Saints somehow stayed afloat with the help of it's elite defense. The star-studded group, led by Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis, and Marshon Lattimore, have risen to the occasion. 

New Orleans' defense has only allowed -.095 EPA per play, second-best in the NFL, and posted a -14.6% DVOA, which is good for fourth-best in the league.

This glaring contrast of having a dominant defense and struggling offense rarely occurs in the NFL. Out of the 672 seasons played in the NFL since 2000, the 2021 Saints are 22 teams that posted both an offensive and defensive DVOA under -10%. If New Orleans can sneak into the playoffs in Week 18, they would be one of only seven teams that made the postseason with this characteristic.

Even with a lagging offense, the Saints still play complementary football, combining a championship-level defense, a solid special teams group, a turnover-free offense, and an immaculate in-season coaching job by Payton and his staff.

"We are big juice boys, and our cup overflows with enthusiasm on the sidelines. It is what it is. We knew going into this year that we want to be a force," said Jordan. "We've been saying that for the last three or four years. I think it is showing."

Cam Jordan

The 2021 season for the Saints has already been marked down as a success because the team consistently had to jump through countless hurdles to get to a .500 record. However, the team has its sights on making the postseason and pulling off some massive upsets.

It may not be pretty, but the Saints have a formula that has won them games against multiple playoff teams. Play shutdown defense, out-coach the other sideline and do not turn the ball over. As they carry this formula potentially into the playoffs, New Orleans has a chance to make noise in the postseason.

Both are of the six teams with an offensive and defensive DVOA under -10% and have made the playoffs since 2000; two teams made runs to championship weekend: the 2009 Jets and the 2010 Bears. 

Aside from excellent defense, both teams share two similar qualities. Their variances were very high (the differences in weekly DVOA performances week to week). They both had a strong weighted DVOA (the adjustment to DVOA, so earlier seasons become gradually less critical).

Saints Defense Celebrates

These characteristics can be translated into the fact that the teams were highly inconsistent, as they had a high variance in play (both over 20%, ranking within the top 5 in the NFL). But the teams played their best football on the high range of the variance scale towards the end of the season, which can be illustrated through a strong weighted DVOA.

The Saints share similar characteristics to the 2009 Jets and 2010 Bears teams, posting a high variance over 20% (21.5%) and a strong 4-1 record to finish the regular season. Yes, the path would be difficult, filled with the juggernauts of the NFC, but New Orleans has proven throughout the season to face adversity head-on. The team has defied the odds all season, overcoming obstacles from mother nature in addition to a record number of hurdles between the white lines on the field.

Payton and the Saints will look to pull one last rabbit out of their hats at the beginning of 2022, giving the Who Dat Nation something to cheer about for at least a few more weeks. After the team's unimaginable 2021, maybe their fortunes can change early in this new year, and they find themselves playing meaningful football in January. 

Article contribution from former SNN intern Andrew Gullotta.

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