The New Orleans Saints have completed the first half of their 2020 schedule. They sit in first place of the NFC South with a 6-2 record after winning their fifth consecutive game last Sunday with a 38-3 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Saints have forged their winning streak thanks to a disruptive defensive front but questionable play in the secondary, despite improvement shown against the Buccaneers.
New Orleans ranks 3rd in the league in total defense, surrendering just 311 yards per game. However, they've allowed 25 points per game because of breakdowns in the secondary and a red-zone defense that ranks last in the league, despite a disruptive front seven with 22 sacks and ranks 2nd against the run.
As the Saints embark on the second half of their schedule, here’s how their defensive positions have graded out over the first part of the year.
Veteran Pro Bowler Cam Jordan got off to a slow start but has come on strong in the last month with all of his 2.5 sacks and most of his 10 QB pressures coming in the previous five games. Third-year DE Marcus Davenport missed the first four games with an elbow injury but has played at a Pro Bowl level over the last four contests since his return, accumulating 1.5 sacks and 9 pressures..
Four-year end Trey Hendrickson has had a spectacular campaign and is arguably the team's defensive MVP over the first half of the year. He leads the team in sacks (7.5), QB hits (13), and tackles for loss (8) while playing his way into a big free-agent payday at the end of the year. Carl Granderson has supplied quality depth with limited snaps, allowing the Saints to attack offenses with a fresh pass rush late in games.
The defensive end position has been responsible for 14 tackles for loss, 12.5 of the team’s 22 sacks, and 24 of their 51 QB hits so far. Jordan and Davenport both commands double-team blocking, while Hendrickson has made opponents pay the price for overlooking him.
MID-SEASON GRADE = B
Fifth-year DT David Onyemata has developed into a dominant interior defender after entering the league as a raw 4th round draft choice in 2016 and signing a lucrative contract extension during the offseason. So far this season, Onyemata has 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 13 QB pressures, and an interception. Sheldon Rankins missed last week's win over Tampa Bay with a knee injury that has him on injured reserve with no timetable for his return. Over the first seven games, Rankins had 1.5 sacks, 7 QB hits, and 4 tackles for loss.
While Rankins has proven to be a formidable inside presence over his five-year career, the Saints have perhaps the league's deepest group of defensive tackles. Veteran Malcom Brown is one of the NFL's best-run defenders upfront and is an underrated pass rusher.
Second-year DT Shy Tuttle has had a solid encore to his breakout first season as an undrafted rookie. Tuttle has only appeared in five of eight games because of the team’s depth at the position and the rapid development of this year's undrafted defensive gem, tackle Malcolm Roach. Like Tuttle, the unheralded Roach has provided outstanding depth both as an interior pass rusher and run defender.
The New Orleans defensive tackles are responsible for 5.5 sacks, 19 QB hits, and 12 tackles for loss through the first eight games. Their pass-rushing numbers aren't really indicative of the impact they've had against opposing passers. The unit, especially Onyemata and Rankins, has gotten consistent interior pressure.
That’s also forced opponents to often double-team them inside, allowing Jordan, Davenport, and Hendrickson to benefit from single blocking at times on the outside. All five defensive tackles have also gotten consistent penetration against opponent's rushing attacks for a 2nd ranked New Orleans run defense that allows just 80 yards per game on the ground.
MID-SEASON GRADE = B
Demario Davis looks well on his way to the second consecutive All-Pro bid of his career. Davis leads the team in tackles (4 for loss), adding 2 sacks and 6 QB pressures. Alex Anzalone has had a quiet season statistically but teams with Davis to form one of the NFL's most athletic tandem of linebackers. Both players are outstanding run defenders, major assets in coverage, have terrific play recognition, and make big plays from sideline-to-sideline.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen runs several alignments lining up just Davis and Anzalone at linebacker. Veteran Craig Robertson, second-year LB Kaden Elliss, and promising rookie Zack Baun have contributed little defensively but are assets on special teams and provide versatile depth. New Orleans traded for athletic veteran Kwon Alexander, who can play any of the linebacker positions.
Davis and Anzalone haven't made many ‘‘splash'' plays over the first half of the year. Still, both have been critical to terrific run defense and vital assets in pass coverage, particularly on opposing tight ends. Alexander's addition will allow Dennis Allen to be more creative and aggressive with his linebackers, likely leading to more big plays over the second part of the season.
MID-SEASON GRADE = B
Coming into the year, most considered Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins to be among the league's best tandems of cornerbacks. While both can take on the NFL's best receivers one-on-one and have had standout moments this year, each player has been erratic. Backups P.J. Williams and Patrick Robinson have fared better in coverage than I expected. However, both have been targeted frequently with success by opposing quarterbacks while on the field.
The Saints have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 66% of their passes over the first half of 2020. Lattimore and Jenkins each had terrific games against a standout unit of Tampa Bay wideouts to bookend the first part of their schedule. They must continue to play at that level for this defense to have the success that it’s capable of.
MID-SEASON GRADE = D
While the cornerbacks have been inconsistent, the play of the New Orleans safeties was usually awful over the first half of 2020. Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins have 3 of the team’s 7 interceptions, but all were in the two games against the Buccaneers, where both players played extremely well. Otherwise, Williams and Jenkins have been the most responsible for the poor decisions, miscommunication, bad tackling, and blown coverages that have plagued the entire secondary through the first eight games. Second-year S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is the team’s top slot coverage option, has played closer to his rookie form in recent weeks, and the entire defensive backfield has shown signs of improvement.
Outside of two terrific outings against the Buccaneers, the New Orleans secondary has been the most disappointing part of their team so far. Inexcusable for a unit that has so much proven talent. I expect the defensive backs to perform far better over the last half of the season. They’d better. With the ghosts of postseason failures over the previous three years still haunting a roster that has remained mostly intact, the abysmal breakdowns of this pass defense are at the very least alarming.
MID-SEASON GRADE = D
The Saints now host the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers to start the second half of their season. San Francisco defeated the Saints in the Superdome last season by a 48-46 score in one of the most entertaining games of 2019 but is now a shadow of that formidable squad. The 49ers come in with a 4-5 record and ravaged by injury, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
San Francisco ranks 13th in total offense but has been held to less than 400 yards in four of their last five contests. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, wideout Deebo Samuel, and All-Pro TE George Kittle are all out for their 17th ranked passing game.
Opponents have sacked 49er quarterbacks 23 times this season, but backup Nick Mullens has good mobility, and wideouts Brandon Aiyuk, Kendrick Bourne, Richie James, and Mohamed Sanu, along with TE Jordan Reed will present a downfield threat against the New Orleans secondary.
The 12th ranked San Francisco rushing attack will be without injured backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, leaving veteran Jerick McKinnon to shoulder the carries. McKinnon will run behind a physical 49ers offensive line that will be a challenge for the talented New Orleans defensive front.
The Saints had their best defensive outing of the season last week against Tampa Bay, holding that talented offense to just 3 points and 194 yards while forcing three turnovers. Their challenge is to keep that momentum rolling against a battered San Francisco offense who has turned the ball over 13 times this year, six of those in the last three games.
New Orleans has shown that they have one of the league's best group of defensive linemen and linebackers, with only the struggles of their secondary holding them back from being an elite defense.