New Orleans Saints Defenders Improvement Elevates Defense

Bob Rose

New Orleans Saints have Pro Bowl caliber talent spread across their roster.  Players like quarterback Drew Brees, running back Alvin Kamara, wideout Michael Thomas, linemen Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, defensive linemen Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Demario Davis, and cornerback Marshon Lattimore are all among the best in the league at their positions.  

That talent is one of the primary reasons that the Saints were among the top Super Bowl favorites coming into the year.  New Orleans is also a deep squad, something that has helped the team withstand several injuries through the first half of the season.  Improvement throughout the roster is a major reason the Saints possess a 7-1 record at the halfway mark of the season. 

That improvement was clear on the defensive side of the ball last year, when the unit was as strong as we’ve seen from New Orleans in quite some time. The defensive progress has continued in 2019, when we’ve watched the squad play at an elite level over the past six games.  The progress of the defense has allowed the Saints to weather their injuries on offense and has been because of a high level of play from several players other than their stars.  Here are a few of the biggest improvements on the defensive side of the ball for New Orleans so far. 

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Marcus Davenport, Defensive End

The Saints paid a heavy price to move up in the 2018 draft to select Davenport with the 14th overall pick.  The 6’6 265-Lb defensive end showed a lot of potential in his rookie campaign, finishing with 4.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and a forced fumble.  Despite the numbers, a foot injury from which he never fully recovered stunted Davenport’s progress.  A slow start to the preseason caused some New Orleans fanbase to question the draft decision.

The 23-Yr old Davenport has responded by being a disruptive presence on the edge opposite of Cam Jordan. Although he has 3 sacks so far, Davenport has equaled his quarterback hits total from all of last year and is credited with 38 pressures according to Pro Football Focus.  He sets the edge well against the run and has proven to be a handful for opposing tackles as a pass rusher, teaming with Jordan to make a formidable edge tandem.  Davenport is an important piece of a New Orleans defensive line that is perhaps the deepest and most talented in the league.

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David Onyemata, Defensive Tackle

Onyemata, a 4th round draft choice in 2016, has always provided a solid inside pass rush.  He has become a better all-around defender, as he’s gained experience to go along with his freakish athleticism.  The 6’4 300-Lb Onyemata has developed into a fine every down tackle.  He has 2 sacks so far, several inside pressures, and has several short yardage run stops in key situations. 

Onyemata’s interior disruption combines with the talents of Rankins and Malcom Brown inside to collapse offensive lines, also creating one-on-one opportunities for Davenport and Jordan along the edge. He is next to impossible to contain with a single blocker, leaving a difficult dilemma for opponents with the rest of the Saints’ talent along the defensive front.

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Vonn Bell, Safety

Bell is possibly the most underrated of all the Saints’ defenders and has developed into one of the league’s most versatile defensive backs.  A 61st overall draft pick in 2016 (2nd round), the former Ohio State star has always been a good run defender and effective blitzer.  The 24-Yr old Bell’s biggest improvement has been in pass coverage.  Even though he has yet to record an interception in 56 NFL games, Bell consistently grades out as one of the team’s most efficient defensive backs. 

He is allowing just opposing quarterbacks to complete less than 66% of their passes when they target him, and surrenders very few yards after the catch.  Despite the lack of interceptions, Bell is still one of the top playmakers for coordinator Dennis Allen’s unit. He has forced 7 career fumbles and has always been one of the team’s top tacklers.  Bell has a league best 4 fumble recoveries in 2019, including one that he returned for a key score in a victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

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Marcus Williams, Safety

New Orleans added Williams with a 2nd round pick in the 2017 draft (42nd overall).  He had a very good rookie season, grabbing 4 interceptions and being credited with 7 pass breakups on his way to All-Rookie honors.  The 23-Yr old free safety regressed last year though, often getting caught out of position and giving up several big plays.  Williams has reverted to his promising first-year form so far in 2019. He has 2 of the Saints 3 interceptions, narrowly missing on some others.  

Williams is second on the team in pass breakups and has shown terrific anticipation and awareness in the secondary.  The improvement in Williams’ play has allowed the New Orleans cornerbacks to clamp down on receivers on shorter routes and the entire unit has shut down the big plays that they were vulnerable to a year ago.

The all-around progression of Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata, Vonn Bell, and Marcus Williams has given the New Orleans defense additional playmakers at every level of the unit. This improvement has transformed the Saints into a top defense and one that can win games by themselves instead of one that needs to rely on offensive production.