Things looked bleak for the Saints after they fell to 0-2. The defense was allowing an average of 32.5 points and 512.5 yards a game. Cornerbacks didn’t know their assignments, and safety Kenny Vaccaro looked like a ghost of his former self (he was benched in the game against the Patriots).

Then, things started to change. The Saints traveled to Carolina and held the Panthers to just 13 points. They followed that performance up with a shutout of the Dolphins. Now, nine weeks into the season, the Saints are sitting at 6-2 and are in first place in the NFC South.

A large reason for their resurgence is a complete turnaround from the defense. According to ESPN, the Saints have allowed a 25.6 total QBR since Week 3 (best in the league). They’re ranked tenth in the league with an average of 19.4 points allowed per game. So far, the defense has intercepted opposing quarterbacks nine times, matching their total from all of last season, and they’re on pace for 46 sacks, an astounding 16 more than last year.

Now, the team is being talked about as a potential Super Bowl contender. The media and fans alike have been quick to point to certain players as the reason for the rebound. Defensive lineman Cameron Jordan is having a career year (7 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown). Safety Kenny Vaccaro has bounced back and currently leads the team with three interceptions. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. He’s quickly developed into one of the top corners in the league.

There’s no doubt that those three players have had a tremendous impact on the defense. However, the player who has quietly been one of the biggest reasons behind the defensive improvement is cornerback Ken Crawley.

A healthy inactive to begin the year, Ken Crawley got the start against the Dolphins in place of P.J. Williams (benched for disciplinary purposes). He intercepted Jay Cutler on the goal line to end a promising drive. Crawley hasn’t looked back since.

The progress he’s made from his rookie to sophomore season has been remarkable. An undrafted free agent out of Colorado, Crawley was forced into a large role his rookie year because of injuries to the Saints’ secondary; he saw extensive action in 15 games. Despite the struggles, he showed promise. It seemed as if he was in position to make plays on a regular basis, but at the end of the day, he struggled to get the job done.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn have done a fantastic job with Crawley. They’ve cleaned up his technique and put him in a position to utilize his strengths.

The clips below are from the Saints’ Week 8 matchup against the Buccaneers. Ken Crawley plays press coverage against Mike Evans. He makes enough contact to disrupt the timing of the route, and after jamming Evans, he drops into his zone in the flat. Jameis Winston was given a tight window to make the throw, but safety Marcus Williams knocked Evans out of bounds before he could complete the catch.

 

The second-year cornerback is at his best when he’s playing press man coverage (likely a result of his 6’1″, 180 lb frame). In this example, Crawley is covering DeSean Jackson. He doesn’t get his hands on Jackson immediately, but as soon as Jackson makes a move outside, Crawley flips his hips and runs. He lives in Jackson’s pocket on this play, and Jameis Winston wisely decides to throw elsewhere.

Despite all of the progress Crawley has made, he still struggles to trust his technique downfield. When the play begins to break down or the ball is in the air, he panics. His tackling leaves a lot to be desired. Against the Lions, Crawley slipped while in coverage against Golden Tate. He should be able to push Tate out of bounds but fails to do so. A total of three Saints defenders were unable to bring down Tate, and as a result, he took it to the house for a 45-yard touchdown.

Chances are Crawley will never develop into an NFL superstar. Marshon Lattimore deserves credit for the work he is doing, but Ken Crawley is everything a team could ask for from their number two cornerback. His style of play allows for Dennis Allen’s defense to remain true to its press-man identity. Ken Crawley may not be the flashiest player on the Saints defense, but he is the unsung hero behind the unit’s turnaround.