After back-to-back 7-9 seasons, a lot of fans are wondering where the team is going. Drew Brees, the team’s elite quarterback, is getting older and is entering the last year of his contract. A team that was considered a powerhouse not too long ago has become an afterthought in an ever-changing league. With training camp a little less than a month away, there are many questions surrounding the Saints. The goal is ultimately to become a contender before Brees’ career comes to an end. His window is closing, and the team must improve quickly if they wish to take advantage of their elite quarterback’s numbered good years. There is no doubt that the defense must improve, but it appears to me that the Saints must become more opportunistic if they wish to return to championship form.

Sean Payton is an offensive mastermind. He and Drew Brees have come together to form one of the most dangerous quarterback/head coach duo in the NFL. Since 2006, the Saints have led the NFL in offensive yards five times. In 2009, their championship season, they led the league in both offensive yards and points.

Unfortunately for the Saints, they have struggled to field a competitive defense consistently throughout Payton’s tenure. They have only ranked in the top-10 twice in defensive points allowed since 2006. It is not uncommon to hear analysts say the Saints have wasted Drew Brees’ prime, and quite frankly, that’s not an outrageous statement. For as great as Brees has been, it is somewhat disappointing that the team has only won one championship.

The optimist in me believes the Saints can make one more honest run at a championship in the years they have left with Brees, assuming he signs a contract extension. Offensively, the Saints are phenomenal, and they should only get better with the additions of TE Coby Fleener and WR Michael Thomas. If the defense can get to the point where they are average, they should be able to make the playoffs. As long as the Saints get to the playoffs, they’ll have a shot at a Superbowl.

Takeaways and Giveaways

What if I told you takeaways equals wins? Yeah, not that surprising. Turnovers have the ability to shift the momentum in a game. Game-changing safeties and cornerbacks are often sought after for their ability to intercept opposing quarterbacks.

Turnover differential is a very important statistic to look at when wanting to understand how opportunistic teams are; it can be calculated by subtracting the number of takeaways by the number of giveaways a team has. Teams strive to have a positive turnover differential; if a team has a positive turnover differential, they have more takeaways than giveaways.

A look at the top 5 teams in terms of turnover differential.

Above is a look at the top five teams in terms of turnover differential in the 2015 season. We see the Panthers, Chiefs, Bengals, Cardinals, and Patriots on this list. What do all of these teams have in common? For one, they were playoff teams and had winning records. The combined record of the five teams was an admirable 63-17. Carolina had an incredible season (15-1), and a great deal of their success can be credited to their turnover differential of 20.

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The Browns, Jaguars, Titans, Ravens, and Cowboys were at the bottom in the league in terms of turnover differential. 20-60 was the combined record of the five teams listed above.

Teams with a positive turnover differential averaged 9.8 wins whereas teams with a negative turnover differential averaged 5.9 wins.

We’ve seen how turnover differential is typically directly linked to the play of teams. Where did the Saints sit in this category? Well, in 2015, the Saints had a turnover differential of 2. That had them tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers at 15th in the league. The average turnover differential was 0 last year, so the Saints were slightly better than the league average last season.

It is important to look at the league average in both interceptions and forced fumbles to understand where the Saints were lacking last season. On average, each team had 13.625 interceptions; the Saints had 9. However, a total of 13 forced fumbles put them above the league average of 9.656 forced fumbles.

2009 Turnover Performance

Being curious to see how the 2015 Saints compared to some of their better teams, I looked to the team’s numbers from 2009. As all Saints fans know, the Saints made their historic championship run in the 2009-2010 season. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers.

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The numbers are in, and the differences are pretty noticeable. Last season, the Saints weren’t nearly as effective at taking the ball away as the 2009 Saints were, but the offense did a better job of protecting the football. Drew Brees threw 11 interceptions in both 2009 and 2015, so we’ll give credit to the running backs and receivers for protecting the ball.

Thirteen forced fumbles were produced by both squads. The 2009 Saints produced 17 more interceptions than the 2015 Saints. In fact, 26 interceptions would have been the league-high last season. Last season, the Saints averaged about 9.9 yards per interception; they averaged about 25 yards per interception in 2009.

A lack of opportunism can be seen in the 2015 Saints. When a team does manage to create a takeaway, it is imperative that they capitalize on it. They scored 53 points off of turnovers last season; that averages to about 2.4 points per takeaway. The defense gave up 51 points on balls the offense gave away. They allowed about 2.55 points per giveaway. In 2009, the Saints averaged 3.44 points per takeaway, and they gave up about 2.54 points per giveaway. It is clear that the offense didn’t do a great job of scoring when the defense created takeaways.

Despite the fact that the offense has been good every year in Sean Payton’s tenure, they have a tremendous amount of room for improvement. The Saints ranked 8th in points last season. Both Michael Thomas and Coby Fleener, two new additions to the team, should help the Saints improve in the red zone. Nick Underhill wrote a great piece that details how Michael Thomas will help the offense near the end zone.

The Path to More Takeaways

It is evident that the Saints must create more takeaways as a defense, but how exactly do they go about that? Well, thats a question with a plethora of answers, yet no answer is a sure-fix.

First off, the personnel on the defense looks to be better than last year’s. Many members of the national media have criticized the Saints for failing to address the defense in both the draft and free agency, but many of critiques are unfairly made. Entering the free agency period, the Saints appeared to be tight on cap space, but the magician, Mickey Loomis, managed to make cap space appear out of nowhere. The team signed linebackers James Laurinaitis , Craig Robertson , and Nate Stupar. Laurinaitis looks to be the starting middle linebacker; both Robertson and Stupar should serve as quality depth. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley was also signed. He should split time with Sheldon Rankins at the three-technique position. Tight end Coby Fleener was signed for a hefty sum to replace the departed Benjamin Watson.

Delvin Breaux, a cornerback who rose to stardom last season, will enter the upcoming season with more experience. Fellow second-year corners Damian Swann and P.J. Williams appear to be healthy. Keenan Lewis , one of the defense’s veterans, also appears to be on his way to full health. Jairus Byrd , however, is still dealing with a knee injury. He hopes to be ready by training camp.

More importantly, perhaps, are the schematic changes defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is planning on making. The team is planning to utilize three safety sets more often. At the moment, Kenny Vaccaro will likely play near the line of scrimmage, and Jairus Byrd and Vonn Bell will be the two deep-safeties. Byrd has been a disappointment in New Orleans so far, but he does have a chance to resurrect himself this year.  In Buffalo, he had 22 interceptions in five years; he’s had one in New Orleans. With two safeties playing deep, there is typically a greater potential for takeaways as the safeties only have to cover half of the field. Byrd played well in Buffalo in two-deep safety sets. Vonn Bell should also have an opportunity to thrive in this look. He was a ballhawk at Ohio State, and the Saints need him to make an impact immediately. Nick Underhill explained the three-safety look well in this article.

Conclusion

It is tough to say how far away the Saints are from being able to compete as we are yet to see them in pads in practices. Ultimately, we won’t know how far away they are until the season begins. There is one thing that is unquestioned; if the defense can create more takeaways, the team will win more games. Here’s my bold prediction for the season: If the Saints have a turnover differential of 6 or better and the defense ranks anywhere from 20th-26th in points allowed, the Saints will make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Each team had an average of 8.6875 one-possession games last season, and turnovers are the key to winning more of those one-possession games. The Saints lost five games by eight points or less last season. In a hypothetical world where they win each of those games, they make the playoffs and have a shot at a championship run. One turnover could be the difference between a win and a loss in those games.

Hopefully, an improved pass rush will allow the Saints’ secondary to make more plays. Drew Brees will lead the offense to a top-five finish in yards yet again, so it is just a matter of being more opportunistic…

Thanks to sportingcharts.com and pro-football-reference.com for providing easy-to-access stats!