For most of Sean Payton's 16-year run as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, his teams were known for their offensive prowess. Led by record-breaking QB Drew Brees, the Saints struck fear in defenses throughout the NFL.
Over the last few seasons, as Brees declined, the Saints became a stronger defensive team. During four straight NFC South titles from 2017 to 2020, the defense was just as instrumental to the team's success as Brees and the offense.
Brees retired after the 2020 season and the Saints offense was hit by a mountain of injuries in 2021. Those injuries, plus ineffective play, caused New Orleans to plummet to the bottom of the league in most offensive rankings.
Despite a stagnant offense, the Saints still finished with a winning record and nearly qualified for the playoffs. It was thanks to a tremendous defensive performance that they managed to stay in contention.
Here is how the Saints defense ranked in 2021.
- Points Allowed = 4th (19.7 per game)
- Yards = 7th (318.2/game)
- Turnovers = 10th (25)
- First Downs = 2nd (304)
- Third Down Percentage = 8th
- Red-Zone Efficiency = 1st
- Yards = 14th (224.8/game)
- Interceptions = 6th (18)
- Touchdowns = 3rd (20)
- Sacks = 7th (46)
- Yards = 4th (93.5/game)
- Yards per carry = 1st (3.7)
- Touchdowns = 6th (12)
Saints Defensive Leaders
- Tackles: Demario Davis (105), Malcolm Jenkins (79)
- Tackles for Loss (88): Cam Jordan/Demario Davis (13), Marcus Davenport (9), Kwon Alexander (7)
- Sacks (46): Cam Jordan (12.5), Marcus Davenport (9), Tanoh Kpassagnon (4)
- QB hits (113): Cam Jordan (22), Marcus Davenport (16), Demario Davis/David Onyemata (10)
- Interceptions (18): Marshon Lattimore/Paulson Adebo/Chauncey Gardner-Johnson/P.J. Williams (3)
For the fourth consecutive year, the Saints ranked among the league's best run defenses. They held 12 of their 17 opponents under 100 yards on the ground and did not allow a 100-yard rusher.
New Orleans was able to win in the trenches with defensive tackles that weren't a major factor as pass rushers, but effectively clogged running lanes. The team's defensive ends play the run as well as any in the league.
Disruptive DT David Onyemata missed the first six games with a suspension. He returned to play outstanding run defense and although he had just two sacks, was among team leaders with 15 QB pressures.
Tackles Shy Tuttle and Christian Ringo didn't show up big on the stat sheet. However, they were strong against the run and effectively pushed pass pockets.
Veteran DE Tanoh Kpassagnon was an underrated free-agent addition during the offseason. In just eight games before being sidelined by injury, Kpassagnon had 4 sacks, 11 pressures, and 3 tackles for loss.
Rookie DE Payton Turner, the team's first-round choice, also flashed potential but was limited to just five outings. Carl Granderson had 3 sacks and 11 pressures in reserve duty along the edge.
The Saints edge tandem of Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport created havoc all season. Davenport had the best year of his four-year career, despite missing seven games. He was a force against the run and nearly unblockable as a pass rusher. Davenport's 9 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 3 forced fumbles were all career highs.
Jordan had a quiet start to the year, drawing unfair criticism in some circles. He finished the year on a tear, with 8.5 sacks coming in the final four games. Jordan also led the Saints with 33 pressures while batting down six passes, forcing two fumbles, and playing his usual top-tier run defense.
The Saints attacked offenses with three athletic linebackers who were each sideline-to-sideline playmakers against the run and pass. Rookie Pete Werner, a second-round pick, showed the promise of a bright future. Werner is a smart player with underrated open field athleticism who was strong in coverage and in run support.
Inexplicably, LB Demario Davis was overlooked in Pro Bowl voting yet again. Davis, one of the league's best all-around defensive players, was a force against the run, superlative in coverage, and a devastating pass rusher.
Davis had over 100 tackles for the fifth consecutive season. He also broke up 7 passes, had a team-high 13 tackles for loss, and recorded 3 sacks and 10 QB hits.
Veteran LB Kwon Alexander had one of the best years of his career after a remarkable recovery from an Achilles injury late in 2020. The athletic Alexander had a monstrous stretch run and had career-best marks in sacks (3.5) and QB hits (7) while adding an interception and 7 tackles for loss.
The Saints secondary, like the pass rush, overcame a slow start to dominate down the stretch of the year. New Orleans allowed four 300-yard passers, but none over the last nine games of the season.
Opposing quarterbacks completed 62% of their throws against New Orleans coverage. The Saints completely shut down some of the NFL's best wide receivers thanks to a deep and talented defensive backfield.
Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore was paramount to the team's aggressive man-to-man scheme. Lattimore gave up just 57.4% completion percentage when targeted and was among the NFL leaders with 19 passes broken up.
Rookie CB Paulson Adebo, a third-round pick, was a terrific complement to Lattimore. The physical and athletic Adebo broke up eight passes and allowed 62% success rate, despite being targeted heavily.
Adebo's play limited the snaps for veteran CB Bradley Roby, who was acquired in an early season trade. Roby still gave the team three starting quality corners. Versatile defensive backs Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams also took on slot coverage duties with near perfection.
Gardner-Johnson is a do-it-all defender who was an underrated star of the unit. Despite missing five contests, he had career-best marks in interceptions (3), sacks (2), pressures (7), while breaking up seven throws and giving up 63.2% completion percentage.
P.J. Williams quietly had the most productive season of his six-year career. Veteran S Malcolm Jenkins and FS Marcus Williams made up one of the league's best safety tandems. Jenkins has lost a step in coverage, but makes up for it with heady play and aggressiveness in the tackle box.
Marcus Williams has as much range as any safety in the NFL. He, Jenkins, and P. J. Williams combined for 6 interceptions, 18 passes broken up, and six tackles for loss.
The Saints became a contender after 20 years of existence in 1987. For the next six years after that, they made the playoffs four times and were considered among the NFL's top teams. Those New York squads were led by a spectacular linebacking corps nicknamed ‘‘The Dome Patrol’’, which fueled intimidating defenses.
The 2021-22 New Orleans Saints defense resembled those ferocious squads at times. With a struggling offense, the responsibility of victory rested squarely on the shoulders of this defense, which nearly carried the team into the postseason.