One of the biggest weaknesses for the New Orleans Saints early in the 2020 season was their secondary play, especially from the safety position. Critical breakdowns and back-breaking penalties from the entire defensive backfield crippled the defense in several games over the first third of the year.
New Orleans lost two of their first three games this season because of the shortcomings in their secondary, a position I gave a D grade at mid-season.
The secondary had some schematic changes after a Week 6 bye, and the entire unit played up to their talent level over the second half of the year. In our first piece grading the performance of each New Orleans position group, we look back at one of the team’s most maligned units.
The Saints bounced back after early season breakdowns in the secondary to finish 5th against the pass defensively. They intercepted 18 passes, most in the NFL, and did not allow a 300-Yd passer all season. Some of that success can be attributed to standout coverage from their cornerbacks, but the safeties eliminated deep passes from opposing offenses and made several big plays over the back half of the year.
Fourth-year free safety Marcus Williams missed three games with an ankle injury late in the year, but still tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions. Williams showcased outstanding athletic ability on the back end. He has as good a range as any safety in the league and trusted his instincts more than ever before in putting together the best year of his career.
Williams will be an unrestricted free agent in March and is expected to be one of the league's highest paid safeties. He was a pivotal factor in the New Orleans defense being the league's best against the pass over the second half of 2020.
Twelve-year veteran Malcolm Jenkins was re-signed by the Saints this offseason after playing his first five years with the organization and last six seasons with the Eagles.
After early season struggles in coverage, Jenkins solidified his play and was a physical presence in the secondary. He had 3 interceptions and 10 passes broken up while also playing a key role in the team's run defense and pass rush.
Often used as an extra linebacker near the line of scrimmage, Jenkins finished second on the team in tackles and had 7 tackles for loss. He helped the New Orleans defense finish 4th against the run and gave up the second fewest rushing touchdowns in the league. Jenkins added 2.5 sacks and 10 QB pressures as a devastating blitzer off the edge.
Second-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson built off his promising rookie campaign by having an outstanding sophomore season. Gardner-Johnson was the team's top slot corner, leading the defense with 13 passes broken up, intercepting a pass, and allowing just 57.4% completion percentage when targeted.
He is one of the team’s most versatile defenders, and excels in "off the ball" coverage and was a disruptive player around the line of scrimmage.
An outstanding tackler, Gardner-Johnson had 5 tackles for loss and had a big role as a run defender. He was also used as a blitzer off the edge effectively, collecting one sack and 6 QB pressures. Gardner-Johnson's coverage skills and versatility helped the Saints shut down teams with deep receiving units, and his intensity kept the defense at an aggressive level.
J.T. Gray contributes little defensively, but is one of the team’s most valued special teams players. The Saints showed quality depth at safety from veteran D. J. Swearinger and CB/S P. J. Williams, both of whom are unrestricted free agents but could be brought back on a team-friendly deal.
Williams is a terrific off-ball defender who struggles in man coverage, while Swearinger can play either safety spot. Both players are valuable for their versatility.
The New Orleans safeties accounted for 8 of the team’s 18 interceptions. They were a critical part of the team's excellent pass defense over the second half of the season, taking away the deep ball option from quarterbacks. Early season struggles prevent their grade from being higher, but this unit was a big factor in the New Orleans defensive success in 2020.