The first bye week of the 17-game NFL schedule could not come soon enough for the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans is one of four teams on a bye this weekend. They next play on Monday, October 25 at Seattle, entering with a 3-2 record and overcoming several obstacles to get there.
The Saints have only been back at their own facilities for two weeks and have played just one of their five games at home because of Hurricane Ida. Additionally, they were hit by a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball.
Stars like WR Michael Thomas, defensive linemen Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata, LT Terron Armstead, C Erik McCoy, LB Kwon Alexander, and K Wil Lutz are among a list of major contributors who have missed multiple games or have yet to suit up at all this season.
The Saints have also struggled offensively. Those are partially due to injuries, but also the inconsistencies with QB Jameis Winston replacing the legendary Drew Brees.
New Orleans has relied on their defense to win games through the first quarter of the year. It’s an underrated defensive unit that’s been among the league's best over the last three seasons, but was hit hard by offseason personnel losses.
Here's how the Saints defense has ranked through the first five games of the year.
SAINTS DEFENSIVE RANKINGS
- Total Yards = 15th (354 per game)
- Points = 4th (18.2/game)
- Passing = 24th (275/game)
- Rushing = 4th (75/game)
- Third Down Efficiency = 8th
- Red Zone Efficiency = 1st
- Turnovers = 3rd (10)
New Orleans got their 2021 season off to a resounding start by holding an explosive Green Bay offense to just three points. Since then they've been a bit inconsistent, suffering a letdown in the first half of a week two loss at Carolina and struggling mightily against the Giants in a week four loss.
The Saints have come at opponents with an aggressive defense this season and have been particularly stout near the goal line. They've allowed just five touchdowns in 14 trips by the opponent inside the red-zone.
After a combined 145 sacks over the previous three seasons, the Saints have slumped in that regard early in the year. They have 35 quarterback hits, but their 8 sacks rank only ahead of Kansas City as the lowest in the NFL.
Defensive ends Cam Jordan, Tanoh Kpassagnon, Carl Granderson, and rookie first-round choice Payton Turner have each had nice moments, but need to convert their pressures into sacks or hurried mistakes.
DE Marcus Davenport had a terrific training camp and monstrous start to the year before being sidelined with a pectoral injury. He’ll be a welcome addition back to the lineup.
Kpassagnon has also logged some time at defensive tackle and played well, but that spot has provided little disruption as pass rushers. Without suspended DT Onyemata, the Saints tackles have no sacks and have combined for just 3 QB hits.
The lack of interior pass rush has allowed opponents to effectively double-team the Saints talented defensive ends at both edges.
Despite an inconsistent pass rush, New Orleans has had mostly exemplary coverage on receivers. The Saints have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete under 61% of their throws and have intercepted 9 passes, second most in the league.
The cornerback position was thought to be a glaring weakness coming into the year, but has developed into a team strength. Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore should be an early season Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Even with a hand injury that required surgery, Lattimore has one interception, a league-best 9 passes broken up, and has allowed less than 42% completion percentage when targeted. Capable of shutting out the NFL's best wideouts, Lattimore's coverage allows the entire defense to me more aggressive and creative.
Rookie CB Paulson Adebo, a third-round pick, has seen a high number of targets because of his inexperience and Lattimore's lock-down ability. Adebo has held up well, intercepting 2 passes and allowing less than 62% success rate when thrown at.
Veteran CB Bradley Roby, acquired in a trade from Houston, provides outstanding depth, while Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams provide tight slot coverage.
Free safety Marcus Williams, who has 2 interceptions and 4 passes broken up, is quietly having an All-Pro campaign. Williams shows outstanding anticipation and has elite range, allowing the corners to be more aggressive underneath.
Veteran S Malcolm Jenkins, the team's oldest player at 33, is playing like he discovered the Fountain of Youth. Jenkins and Gardner-Johnson are used all over the field and have been valuable in coverage, as blitzers, and against the run.
The Saints linebackers have also been a major key to the defense's success. Elite LB Demario Davis is a nightmare for offenses whether he's rushing the passer, dropping into coverage, or tracking down a running back for a big stop.
Rookie second-round LB Pete Werner has developed into a terrific complement to Davis with Kwon Alexander sidelined. Werner is a terrific coverage linebacker with underrated open field ability.
Zack Baun and Kaden Elliss provide quality depth at linebacker. Neither are strong in coverage, but are aggressive downhill defenders who play the run well.
The Saints continue to be one of the NFL's toughest defenses to run against. They've held four of their five opponents under 100 yards on the ground and the 3.3 average per rush against them is the best in the league.
The Saints defensive tackles may not be a factor as pass rushers, but Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, Christian Ringo, and Montravius Adams have stood up run blockers and freed up teammates to make plays. Jordan is one of the league's best run defenders along the edge and the other defensive ends crash inside to snuff out running plays.
Davis, Werner, and the other linebackers fire into opposing backfields to stop runners in their tracks and have the athleticism to beat a back to the edge. The aggressive New Orleans secondary is arguably the league's best against the run.
One area of concern for the Saints is their ability to contain a mobile quarterback. Daniel Jones and Taylor Heinicke each made several plays against them with their legs.
Onyemata must serve one more game of his suspension before he’ll be eligible to play. His return will force opponents to concentrate more blocking inside, freeing up a deep crew of defensive ends for more one-on-one matchups.
Having Davenport and Onyemata back in the lineup will create more disruption for the Saints up front. A ball-hawking New Orleans secondary will have more chances for big plays, but must also continue to hold up in tight coverage.
As long as the Saints continue to stuff the run, it forces opponents to rely on the passing game for success. Adebo should continue to improve, while Roby is there for reliable depth to Lattimore's superlative shutdown skills.
New Orleans will improve offensively as Winston gets more comfortable and with the return of Michael Thomas, Erik McCoy, and Terron Armstead. This team has been carried by its outstanding defense, a trend that should continue as the Saints return to action on the road at Seattle and head towards a playoff push.