The New Orleans Saints have started a season with a 1-1 record for the fifth consecutive year. New Orleans won their week three matchup in three of the last four years. A 1-1 record is certainly no cause for panic, but there are a few concerning trends that are starting to emerge from these first two games.
One of those areas is the team’s pass rush. After averaging nearly 48 sacks and 109 QB hits over the last four seasons, including 46 takedowns in 2021, the Saints have generated little pressure so far this season. New Orleans has only one sack, four QB hits, and seven pressures in their two games.
Atlanta QB Marcus Mariota attempted 33 passes without a sack and only four official pressures in the opening week. The Falcons moved the mobile Mariota away from New Orleans pressure throughout that game and he often got rid of the ball quickly when he was in the pocket.
Mariota also rushed for 72 yards. Many of those were designed runs, but it was also clear that he was instructed to just tuck the ball and pick up yardage with his legs when his initial read wasn't there.
Tampa Bay QB Tom Brady dropped back to pass 35 times against the Saints last Sunday. New Orleans sacked him just once, while recording three hits or pressures. Brady doesn't have Mariota's mobility, but got rid of the ball quickly to attack the Saints with a short passing game.
Reason for Concern?
The Falcons and Buccaneers both constructed their game plans wisely to combat New Orleans pressure. However, a usually dominant Saints defensive front underperformed in both matchups.
Atlanta has one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Tampa Bay was down to their third-string left tackle on Sunday, but still managed to control Saints DE Marcus Davenport with ease. The Buccaneers also had key injuries along their interior front, but New Orleans was unable to bring consistent inside pressure on Brady.
In their previous four regular season meetings against Brady, the Saints had sacked him 16 times while registering 26 hits and 39 pressures. They had 16 sacks and 50 pressures in their previous four outings against Atlanta. Pressure was one of the main reasons for the Saints holding the Buccaneers and Falcons to an average of less than 16 points in those eight games.
Defensive ends Davenport and Cam Jordan were especially dominant in those matchups, but were mostly invisible in this season's first two weeks. They combined for 14 tackles, but had only one pressure and one QB hit between them.
Tackles David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle have combined for the Saints only sack this season, but have failed to generate much consistent inside pressure. Ends Jordan and Carl Granderson have not yet registered a hit on the quarterback. Payton Turner, the Saints first-round choice last season, was a healthy scratch against Tampa Bay.
A Chance to Get Right?
New Orleans faces their third consecutive NFC South opponent when they travel to face the 0-2 Carolina Panthers this Sunday. The Saints defense demolished the Panthers, 18-10, in week 17 last season. However, Carolina's passing attack rolled up 305 yards in a week two upset of New Orleans last year.
The Saints sacked Carolina QB Sam Darnold seven times and recorded 14 pressures in their win. Turner had a sack and five pressures in the week two loss, but the rest of the defensive line was relatively quiet as Darnold carved up their secondary.
Baker Mayfield replaces Darnold at quarterback this season. Carolina is also rebuilding an offensive line that allowed 52 sacks last season. The centerpiece of that unit is rookie LT Ikem Ekwonu, the draft's sixth overall selection and the first offensive player chosen.
Four of those sacks and the majority of the pressures against the Panthers have come along the edge. The Saints have a deep rotation of edge rushers with Jordan, Davenport, Turner, Granderson, and Tanoh Kpassagnon.
In 22 career games against the Panthers, Jordan has 12.5 sacks and 20 QB hits. He had 3.5 sacks of Darnold when these teams met in December, going primarily up against RT Taylor Moton.
Ekwonu heads a line with RG Austin Corbett, a key offseason free-agent addition, RT Moton, and C Pat Elflein. While stocked with potential, the line continues to struggle protecting the quarterback. Mayfield has been sacked six times so far, with opponents recording a combined 17 pressures.
Expect the Panthers to use designed roll outs against the Saints. Mayfield has underrated mobility and throws well on the run, but tends to make critical mistakes when under pressure in the pocket. It will be up to the Saints to get immediate pressure off the snap to disrupt Mayfield's timing and keep him from getting into a rhythm.
The New Orleans pass rush also got off to a slow start in 2021, but were dominant down the stretch of the year. Remember that Jordan had 8.5 of his 12.5 sacks over the last four games of the season. Davenport also exploded after a slow start, compiling eight sacks and 14 QB hits over his final eight games.
New Orleans has a talented secondary, but they'll be tested by Panthers wideouts D. J. Moore and Robbie Anderson, along with RB Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield.
It’s up to the Saints pass rush to play up to their talented potential and disrupt the flow of the game. If they don't, New Orleans could be facing a 1-2 divisional record to start a season that was full of promise.
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