“Bend but don’t break.” It’s a phrase analysts throw around often to describe defenses that seemingly struggle, but remain highly effective at the end of the day. The team can bend by allowing opposing offenses to get near the end zone, but they must avoid breaking by limiting them to a field goal.
The Saints’ defense did plenty of bending in 2016 as they ranked 27th in yards allowed (375 yards a game). Unfortunately, they also did a lot of breaking as they gave up the second most points per game (28.3)
It seems as if the Saints are stuck in purgatory. After finishing the last three seasons with a 7-9 record, it’s clear that something needs to be done. For the Saints, the story has been the same for a while: A team with a high-powered offense that is forced to participate in shootouts because of a leaky defense. So far, attempts by the front office to fix the defense have been fruitless. It seemed as if the defense was ready to rebound last year, but a number of early injuries left the secondary decimated.
There is no doubt that the team has playoff potential. The offense has been one of the most productive in the league, and there’s no reason to believe they should be worse in 2017. In fact, they should be better and look to be designed in a way that benefits the defense (a greater focus on the run game leads to less time on the field for the defense). Dennis Allen must be able to field a competent defense in order for the team to make a playoff run. The pieces are there to form a defense that follows the idea of “bend but don’t break”, and if the team is able to create more turnovers, defensive success will be much easier to achieve.
Defensive remodels can happen a number of ways. It should be the priority of every team to affect the quarterback in today’s passing league. Thus, the quickest ways to improve a defense are to add a dominant pass rusher or a cornerback who excels in man coverage. The addition of Alex Okafor on the edge doesn’t count as the addition of a dominant pass rushing force, but he should be an upgrade over what the team had opposite of Cam Jordan last year. The loss of Nick Fairley creates a void in the interior pass rush that will need to be filled by second-year players Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata. Despite the inability to add a game-changing edge rusher, the Saints managed to add Marshon Lattimore, a rookie cornerback who could potentially develop into a lockdown force on the outside.
Last year, I wrote about how important it was for the Saints to become more opportunistic. It remains true that the Saints must do a better job of creating takeaways and limiting giveaways. The Saints finished the 2016 season with a -3 turnover differential; this means that they had three more giveaways than takeaways.
The correlation between turnovers and wins is clear. Teams with a positive turnover differential averaged 9.8 wins in 2016; teams with a negative differential averaged 5.9 wins. Of the teams that made up the 2016 playoff field, only three teams had a negative turnover differential in the regular season: the Detroit Lions (-1), New York Giants (-2), and Houston Texans (-7). The two leaders in net turnover points (points from takeaways minus the points from giveaways) just so happened to be the two teams that competed in the Super Bowl (Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots).
In Week 2 of the 2016 season, the Saints’ defense turned in their best performance of the year; their play was that of a “bend but don’t break” team. Although the team lost to the Giants by a score of 16-13, the defense showed some of its potential and provides us with an idea of how the defense needs to play in order for the team to reach the playoffs.
The Giants amassed 417 yards over the course of the game. Most of those yards came through the air as quarterback Eli Manning threw for 368 yards. The most impressive thing to come out of that game was the fact that the defense didn’t allow a touchdown; the one Giants touchdown was a result of a special teams mishap. How did the Saints’ defense manage to hold the Giants to three touchdowns despite allowing 417 yards? Turnovers. Although the Saints failed to intercept Manning, they were able to force and recover three fumbles.
It’s clear that the Saints are trying to building a defense that will give Drew Brees a chance at another title. They haven’t spent outrageous amounts of money on the top tier free agents, but their selections in the past two drafts show a commitment to acquiring young defensive talent. More importantly, perhaps, is the positions they’ve addressed. With their first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, they chose Sheldon Rankins, a disruptive interior defender. In the 2017 NFL Draft, they chose Marshon Lattimore, a talented cover corner from Ohio State.
Given that training camp hasn’t begun, it’s impossible to know exactly what Dennis Allen is trying to do with the defense. However, all signs are pointing to the group being focused on deceiving the opponent and creating more turnovers. Last year, the Saints’ defense only intercepted opposing quarterbacks nine times. The average NFL had about 13 interceptions last season. Only six of the nine interceptions are returning to the team as Jairus Byrd (two interceptions) and B.W. Webb (1 interception) were cut or not re-signed after the season.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the defense. The loss of Nick Fairley is a huge blow, but Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata should be able to fill part of the void. Additionally, Cam Jordan can slide inside on third downs in place of Fairley. More important is the new-look secondary. The Saints played a base “big nickel” package (three safeties, two cornerbacks, two linebackers, four defensive linemen) last year, and it’s very possible that they will continue to play with three safeties on a majority of the snaps. Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell will be the starting safeties when the team is playing two safeties. Delvin Breaux, the breakout star from 2015, is now healthy and is primed to have a great season. Either P.J. Williams or Marshon Lattimore will be starting opposite of Breaux. Rookie safety Marcus Williams will be on the field in big nickel packages. Four of the Saints’ top six defensive backs are either new to the team or healthy. Only Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell had extensive playing time last year.
There has been a clear upgrade in talent in the secondary. Delvin Breaux has shown the ability to be a lockdown cornerback. Third-year cornerback P.J. Williams is now healthy after being shut down last season because of a serious concussion. Although he is a bit of an unknown, he represents an upgrade over Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb, the Saints’ two starting corners last season. Marshon Lattimore has had his fair share of ups and downs in practices thus far, but that’s to be expected of rookie corners. New safety Marcus Williams represents something the defense has been missing for quite some time: a safety with ball skills that has the ability to play single-high coverage.
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has always been one who likes to disguise his coverages. He was unable to do much disguising last year because of the lack of talent in the secondary. The current crop of defensive backs should give him more flexibility in his play-calling as the team has two versatile safeties and potentially three cornerbacks who can excel in man coverage. The secondary will likely make the blitzes more effective as receivers shouldn’t open up as quickly.
The Saints’ defense will be able to embody the concept of “bend but don’t break” if the secondary becomes the strength of the defense. Better coverage from the secondary will give the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback. The two work hand-in-hand. If the pass rush struggles, it’s likely the secondary will struggle. When the pass rush experiences success, it’s likely the secondary will do the same and vice versa.
No one knows how the upcoming season will pan out, and until training camp starts, we won’t have a true idea of what could be in store. However, all signs point to the defense being better. I hate to admit it, but the Saints’ defense will not be that of the Seahawks or the Broncos. Despite this, the potential is there for the unit to meet the NFL average and be opportunistic. With an offense as powerful as the one led by Drew Brees, a few extra possessions over the course of the season could make all the difference. If the Saints do manage to make the playoffs, it’ll undoubtedly be a result of a revitalized defense.