I keep hearing the pundits telling us to expect a close, high-scoring shootout this weekend when the Saints take on the Lions in their Wild Card game. I'm assuming it's because they see two high-powered offenses coupled with barely mediocre defenses. But don't get distracted by their flashy offense. I think the Saints defense is better than any of the 'experts' are giving them credit for and this game might not be as close as everyone thinks.
That's because they're almost assuredly looking at the most obvious stat and the one that would make most sense to check first: average total yards allowed per game. And it's true, the Saints defense gives up a crap load of yardage. There's no denying that. You've seen it, I've seen it, we've all seen it. Over the last eight games, their defense has given up an average of 390.9 yards per game. Had that been their season average, it would be piss poor enough to rank them 29th overall in the league. As it stands they've completed the regular season as the 24th ranked defense overall.
But what they're not looking at is the most important stat of them all, the one that matters most: points allowed per game. Over the last eight games the Saints defense has allowed an impressive average of only 18.75 points per game. Again, if that was their season average, it would be good enough to rank them 6th best among all teams.
Hmmm...that's weird. How the hell is a defense giving up so much yardage but holding opponents to so few points? How does such a huge statistical discrepancy exist? It's not turnovers. Nope, they're -3 overall for the season, which ranks them 19th overall. So what could it be?
It's because they're shutting that ish down when it matters most: on third down. The Saints defense finished the regular season ranked 5th in third down defense, allowing just 33.17% of opponent third downs to be converted. But they've only gotten better because over the last eight games, the defense has allowed a paltry 24.65% of third downs to be converted. That would be best in the league by a mile if it was their season average.
Just as turnovers were the saving grace for the Saints 2009 defense, their success on third down in 2011 is the statistical anomaly making this year's defense surprisingly more dangerous than most would expect or give them credit for. It's the glue holding it all together. In 2009, the Saints had a 25th ranked defense but the third highest turnover margin. This year, they're a 24th ranked defense with the fifth best third down defense. Add to that the fact that they're tops in the league on offensive third downs as well and we might as well call this season for the Saints 'The Year of Third Down Domination.'
But seriously...don't sleep on this defense.