The New Orleans Saints entered the 2020 season with one of the NFL's best tandem of cornerbacks in Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, but questionable depth at the position. After shutting down a deep Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiving corps in Week 1, the entire secondary suffered breakdowns over the next four games, even getting some uncharacteristic struggles from Lattimore.
The defensive backfield rebounded after a Week 6 bye, helping the Saints defense finish 5th against the pass. New Orleans did not allow a 300-Yd passer all season, gave up just 59.8% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, and led the league with 18 interceptions.
During a five-game from Week 8 to 12, the Saints had 10 interceptions while giving up 3 touchdown passes. They held perennial Pro Bowl quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan to only 56% completion percentage, intercepting Ryan and Brady 7 times while allowing just 3 touchdowns.
Containing such deep and talented receiving corps like the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Falcons was an impressive effort from the entire New Orleans secondary. Today we’ll grade one of the most difficult positions in all sports.
After a rocky start, CB Marshon Lattimore earned the third Pro Bowl bid in his four seasons by turning in his most impressive campaign, finishing with 2 interceptions and 11 passes broken up. Often asked to shadow the opposition's top wideout, Lattimore allowed just 52.9% completion percentage when targeted, making some of the NFL's best receivers irrelevant.
All-Pro wideouts like Tyreek Hill and Julio Jones were routinely shut down by Lattimore and the secondary, but Lattimore has always elevated his play to a Hall of Fame level when facing Tampa Bay Pro Bowler Mike Evans. In three games against the Saints this season, Evans was targeted 13 times, catching just six passes for 69 yards. Only two of those receptions were directly against Lattimore, whose stifling one-on-one coverage allows the entire defense to be more aggressive in its approach.
Lattimore is perfectly complemented by Janoris Jenkins, one of the league's most dangerous ball hawks. Jenkins tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions and finished second with 12 passes broken up. He had the Saints' only defensive touchdown this year, returning an interception of Tampa Bay's Tom Brady 36 yards for a key score in the Saints Week 1 victory.
Jenkins allowed less than 59% completion percentage when targeted this season. His outstanding ball skills and excellent coverage ability gives the Saints arguably the league's best duo of cornerbacks. He is under contract for 2021 but could be a cap casualty because of a big contract unless he restructures his deal.
Second-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was the defense's top cover corner, helping the team excel against deeper receiving corps. Gardner-Johnson had an interception and led the Saints with 13 passes broken up. His excellence in the slot allowed New Orleans to be less reliant on veteran P. J. Williams in that role. Williams, who is a solid off-ball defender but a liability in man coverage, was instead used for his versatility. That included several snaps at safety, where his skill-set is better utilized.
New Orleans showed better depth than expected at the position because of the performance of veteran CB Patrick Robinson and practice squad players Grant Haley and Ken Crawley. Robinson had his best season as a Saint, allowing a 64% completion percentage when targeted but giving up just one touchdown pass and coming up with two key interceptions.
Robinson missed the last month of the season with injuries, but Grant Haley and Ken Crawley each had an interception and made key plays down the stretch after being promoted from the practice squad. Haley and Crawley both had picks as the Saints snagged five interceptions in a season finale win at Carolina despite a depleted secondary.
Special teams ace Justin Hardee and undrafted rookie Keith Washington rounded out the depth chart. Washington remained on the practice squad all year after an impressive training camp, while Hardee has given the defense quality snaps in the past.
The entire secondary struggled with an erratic start to the year. New Orleans rebounded at their bye week and were the league's best defense against the pass over the last two months of the season. The cornerbacks contained some of the NFL's best-receiving units over that stretch, giving the team's ferocious pass rush extra time to pressure opposing quarterbacks.