Saints Defense: Still Bending, Less Breaking

Wesley Hitt

What looked to be a wayward season for the New Orleans Saints now looks to be one for the ages. How have they been able to turn this season around?

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

The concluding line in Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken describes the Saints 2012 season perfectly. They began the season losing four straight games, three of them to NFC opponents. All of a sudden, however, the Saints look like the team that we have come to know over the past few of years: a strong, winning organization.

Since the merger in 1970, only one team (the 1992 San Diego Chargers) has made the playoffs after starting the season 0-4. After the Saints opened up the year with four straight losses, the critics were all but ready to call the Saints 2012 campaign over. That was until the team began their recent stretch of winning four out of the past five games. Two of those games were key divisional matchups, one being against then undefeated Atlanta Falcons.

How were they able to turn this season around? Let's take a look at some offensive and defensive numbers.

Passing
First 4 games (0-4) Last 5 games (4-1)
Yards Per Game 337.5 299
Completion Percentage 57.5 66.7
Touchdowns 10 15
QB Rating 86.1 111.1
Attempts Per Game 48 37

Rushing
First 4 games (0-4) Last 5 games (4-1)
Yards Per Game 81 95
Yards Per Carry 4.5 4.27
Attempts Per Game 18 22

Defense
First 4 games (0-4) Last 5 games (4-1)
Average Yards Allowed Per Game

472

(285 pass)

(187 rush)

495

(352 pass)

(142 rush)

Average Sacks 1.5 per game 3 per game
Average Turnovers 1.5 per game 1.5 per game

After taking a look at these stats, it's really difficult to decipher why the Saints have had so much success the past five weeks. When the Saints opened up 0-4, they were averaging 27.5 points per game. In their past five games, the Saints have averaged 27.8 points per game. Drew Brees has actually averaged less yards per game than he did in the opening stretch. The only difference is that he is being more efficient. His completion percentage is nearly 10% higher and his passer rating is considerably higher now than it was in the opening four games.

The Saints have been running the ball better you say? That's true, they have been. But statistically, it doesn't prove to be their "winning factor." They are only averaging 14 yards per game more in the past five games than they did the first quarter of the season.

The next thing you might say is, "The defense has stepped up considerably!" But has it really? The Saints are allowing 22 more yards per game in this winning stretch. The amount of turnovers per game is the exact same.

So what gives? How are the Saints magically winning again when so many important stats are about the same?

I'll give you the answer. It is the so-called "bend-but-don't-break" defense that we have loathed so much. Behind all of the yardage and the "worst statistical defense in history" mask, the Saints have actually stepped up. When the Saints began 0-4 they were allowing 32.5 points per game, opposed to 25.2 points per game in their 4-1 stretch. But that still doesn't answer the question of how the Saints are stopping these teams.

Through all of my research, I have determined that it's their goal-to-go defense winning them games. Through the first four weeks, the Saints goal-to-go percentage was 62.5%, which means opposing teams were finding the end zone 62.5% of the time they were able to get inside the 10-yard line.

Since the Saints have been winning, however, that number has dropped to 39%. Basically, this means that 61% of the time opposing teams get inside of the Saints 10-yard line, they're coming away with only a field goal or no points at all, which in turn leads to less points allowed per game. That, my friends, is magnificent information that's not being mentioned.

Could the Saints have found their winning formula? Maybe. Could this just be a lucky fluke? Sure it could. But right now, the Saints are doing what they need to do to get the job done. They are giving up tons of yards, but they are not giving up tons of points. They're still bending, but they're breaking less.

There is a lot of football left to be played. Anything can happen. I just know that the Saints are taking the path less traveled.

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