NFL Power Rankings 2013: Saints Defense Tops NFC South

The New Orleans Saints continue to hold a solid lead over the rest of the NFC South in defense, passing, and overall offense.

Current Rankings: (NFC South)

This Week

Offense

Defense

Passing

Rushing

Saints

3 (↑3)

11 (↓9)

3 (↓1)

23 (↓7)

Falcons

10 (↑1)

23 (↓1)

11 (↑1)

11 (↓4)

Panthers

32 (↓10)

26 (↓3)

29 (↓11)

29 (↓3)

Buccaneers

31 (↓13)

21 (6)

32 (↓8)

16 (↓6)

Despite the Saints declining in the defensive and rushing rankings, they remain firmly atop the NFC South.

Saintshelmet_medium New Orleans Saints (3-0):
The New Orleans Saints defense slipped down the charts last week against the Texans No.1 offense, which also managed to hold on to the No.1 passer rank in the league. However, even with Luke McCown leading the 3rd ranked passing game, New Orleans managed to push the Texans defense down six ranks to No.10 while the Saints overall offense climbed to the No.3 spot. Though every New Orleans running back was targeted for multiple passes, the actual rushing production stayed low enough for New Orleans to drop below the average rank in one category for the first time this year.

This Thursday, the Saints head to Sun Life Stadium to play their final game of the preseason against the Miami Dolphins. Given the catastrophic preseason that has befallen the AFC East -- with the Bills hitting their third string quarterback out of necessity, and the Jets circus actually wishing they had a healthy Sanchez (shoulder) after backup Geno Smith's 3-interception performance last week -- the Dolphins are feeling a bit more secure in their division, and are unlikely to risk much in the way of starting players. Considering that Miami's offense dropped four points to 21st in the league this past week, the Saints defense might climb back into the Top Ten, even as they work out kinks and make final decisions on personnel. More importantly, they might gain a bit more confidence going into the Week 1 game against the Falcons. On the offensive side of the ball, neither McCown nor Griffin should have any trouble, even against the No.6 Dolphins defense. However, if Sean Payton intends to try sneaking RG4 through the waivers to the practice squad -- a difficult prospect, given the QB issues around the league at the moment -- the undrafted Tulane rookie shouldn't see much playing time. Even still, New Orleans' best bet might be for him to go out there and fake an injury, to lower his immediate value.

[Current Dolphins Rankings: Offense - 21st; Defense - 6th; Passing - 12th; Rushing - 24th]

Falconshelmet_medium Atlanta Falcons (0-3):
As the only team in the NFC South to lose last week, the Falcons join the Jaguars, Vikings, Steelers and Rams as the only teams in the NFL that have yet to win a game this year. That group is certain to be diminished as Atlanta follows their 16-27 loss to the Titans by hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars. After climbing the rankings a bit following week two, the Falcons stayed fairly even across the board this week, landing just under the Top Ten in terms of passing and rushing against a Titans defense that climbed out of the No.31 rank at the expense of the Atlanta offense. On the defensive side of the ball, Atlanta remains ranked as one of the ten worst in the NFL. However, given that the Jaguars defense and passing game are both ranked near the bottom of the league, the Falcons should break their losing streak at home this weekend.

[Current Jaguars Rankings: Offense - 19th; Defense - 30st; Passing - 30th; Rushing - 6th]

Panthershelmet_medium Carolina Panthers (2-1):
The Carolina Panthers grabbed their second win of the year against the Baltimore Ravens, a week after Baltimore beat the Falcons. However, the Panthers still managed to slip in the ranks across the board, due to the nature of their gains. Carolina didn't manage to break 100 yards in either passing nor rushing, but managed 207 yards returned between punts and interceptions. Though the Panthers grabbed two TD's off of interceptions, one off a fumble, and a fourth from a punt return... the Carolina offense didn't manage to score a single touchdown, and fell down the ranks to land dead last in the NFL. On the other side of the ball: despite their turnovers and poor special teams performance, the Ravens were still able to drive down the field against the Panthers, garnering 357 total yards split fairly evenly between passing and rushing. This week, Carolina wraps up its preseason by hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers, who -- despite their average ranked defense -- rank higher than the Panthers in all four categories.

[Current Steelers Rankings: Offense - 24th; Defense - 16th; Passing - 21st; Rushing - 22nd]

Bucshelmet_medium Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2):
Barely securing their first win of the year in a 17-16 game against the Dolphins, Tampa Bay's passing game performed so poorly that they dropped to dead last in the league. Only their average rushing performance this preseason, and the dismal offensive performance of their division mates in "process blue," managed to save the Buccaneers overall offense from hitting rock bottom in a second category. This week, Tampa Bay hosts the Washington Redskins, whose mobile quarterbacks are complimenting a decent stable of RB's to lead the NFL in rushing. Add in a decent passing game and the No.3 defense in the league, and the Redskins are starting off their year with elan, even without RG3 having yet taken the field. Regardless of which players take the field this week for either team Thursday evening, there is a good chance that the Bucs end this preseason with another loss.

[Current Redskins Rankings: Offense - 6th; Defense - 3rd; Passing - 15th; Rushing - 1st]

Last Week's Performance:
(Saints 31, Texans 23)

Having taken a look at where the Saints currently stand, and what this week holds for the NFC South, let's take a look at what happened last week to affect our team's rankings in each of the four categories.

Offense
New Orleans posted 380 yards in 55 plays throughout the course of the game, averaging 6.9 yards per play and putting 31 points on the board via 4 passing touchdowns and 1 field goal. While earning 19 first downs, the Saints converted 6 of 11 (55%) on third downs, and never went for it on fourth down.

The first team barely saw the field as a complete unit, as Drew Brees was only in for eleven plays. He handed the ball off four times (Thomas 3, Ingram 1), completed four of his six passes (including a 51-yard touchdown to Pierre Thomas), and was sacked once. Despite the Saints rotating a number of players throughout the rest of the game, both McCown and Griffin performed well... each scoring touchdowns while avoiding multiple sacks and throwing zero interceptions.

Offense

TD’s

FG’s

Yards

1st Downs

3rd Down Conv

Sacked

Fmbl / Lost

Int

First Half

2

1/1

245

10

2/5 (40%)

1 (6 yds)

0

0

Second Half

2

0

135

9

4/6 (67%)

0

0

0

Total

4

1/1

380

19

6/11 (55%)

1 (6 yds)

0

0

The lack of turnovers by the three New Orleans quarterbacks, even under significant pressure, is a great trend that needs to continue into the regular season. Despite facing a defense ranked No.4 at the start of the game, the Saints managed to put on an impressive enough offensive performance to climb from No.6 to the third ranked offense in the NFL, just behind the Texans and Eagles.

Defense
In the first half, the New Orleans defense allowed 36 more yards than their offense gained; and the 88 yards they allowed in the fourth quarter were 5 fewer than the Saints offense scored. The 127 yards Houston gained in the third quarter, however, were over three times as many as the Saints gained in the same quarter. The Texans scored a touchdown in the first and third quarters, and scored zero points in the fourth quarter. A. Johnson, currently one of the best receivers in the NFL, accounted for 131 of Houston's total yards. Merely adding B. Tate's 74 rushing yards (6.7 YPC) to that total accounts for over 200 of the yards allowed by the New Orleans defense.

Despite the beating suffered by the Saints defense overall, there were a few bright spots, including a great job of pass coverage by Patrick Robinson, and Curtis Lofton having the presence of mind to punch the ball out in the end zone to prevent a touchdown reception. Glenn Foster had another good showing as well, getting to the Texans quarterback twice, while Cameron Jordan and Tyrunn Walker each hit the opposing team's passer once on plays that did not result in sacks. In the first half, Cam Jordan also answered Houston's only sack with two sacks of his own against Matt Schaub. One of those sacks resulted in the loss of 10-year Saints veteran Will Smith, when Schaub landed on the outside of his knee. At the time, it was said Smith's return was probable; however, the play in which the longest-tenured player on the Saints tore his ACL may end up being the last time we ever see him on the field in uniform.

Although the Saints defense did not acquire any turnovers, the fact that they forced three fumbles gives credence to the idea that the team is devoting some focus to the turnover game. David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick, and Rod Sweeting each knocked the ball loose at some point in the game, and the ball was blown dead (lack of forward progress) just before another fumble (recovered by Lofton) on the goal line stand immediately before Houston's first touchdown. And though the Saints did give up almost 500 total yards, they managed to perform when it really mattered. New Orleans stopped the Texans on three of Houston's five trips to the red zone, and kept them from scoring touchdowns on two of the three occasions the home team made it to 1st-and-goal.

Defense

TD’s
allowed

FG’s
allowed

Yds
allowed

1st Downs
allowed

3rd Down Conv.
allowed

Sacks

Fumbles
Forced /Rec

Int

Points
Scored

First Half

1

3/3

281

15

2/6 (33%)

2 (10 yds)

1/0

0

0

Second Half

1

0

215

15

3/6 (50%)

0

2/0

0

0

Total

2

3/3

496

30

5/12 (42%)

2 (10 yds)

3/0

0

0


Despite the bright spots in the play of the New Orleans defense this past Sunday, and some great performance when backed up against the goal line, the sheer number of yards given up to the Texans caused the Saints to fall just below the top ten defenses in the NFL. Although it was quite a significant drop, it follows a game against the No.1 offense in the league, and certainly could have been much worse.

Passing
The New Orleans passing game was in proper form this past Sunday, carving up one of the top ten defenses in the league fairly steadily. Given the caliber of Drew Brees, the only part about their passing performance which might be surprising... is that most of it came with Luke McCown under center, and with the undrafted rookie Ryan Griffin putting up a solid showing of his own in the fourth quarter. The two backup quarterbacks combined for a 67% passing completion rate in each half, the same completion percentage Drew had on his six pass attempts. Another numerical coincidence: the first half's 202 yards in 18 passing attempts with zero interceptions this past Sunday matches exactly the figures put up by the Saints in the first half of the Oakland Raiders game, a week prior.

As usual, New Orleans spread the ball around among a number of eligible receivers. Nobody was targeted more than Andy Tanner and Travaris Cadet, who each caught all three passes thrown their way (two of Tanner's catches were for TD's). Jimmy Graham and Courtney Roby were also target three times each, and were the only two receivers with more than one incompletion (each only catching 1 of 3). Saalim Hakim failed to make something of the only time he was targeted; and while Pierre Thomas only caught one of his two intended passes, he turned it into a 51-yard touchdown. Kenny Stills looked great catching both of his intended passes (one for 40 yards, and one 14-yard touchdown); and Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and fullback Austin Johnson each caught their two targets.

Passing

Yards

Attempts

Complete

Yds/Att

Int

Sacked

1st Downs

TD’s

First Half

202

18

12 (67%)

11.2

0

1 (6 yds)

9

2

Second Half

100

15

10 (67%)

6.7

0

0

7

2

Total

302

33

22 (67%)

8.9

0

1 (6 yds)

16

4

One of the best things about the Saints passing game right now is the consistency with which all three quarterbacks are protecting the ball and making their completions, even under pressure and even while targeting a multitude of receivers. With the Saints targeting fifteen different players for receptions (14 successfully), there is a decent chance that one or more players who were targeted by a Saints QB this past Sunday will be wearing another team's uniform before the end of the regular season. More troubling, however, may be the chances of keeping our undrafted rookie QB around without dedicating a precious roster spot to him this year. The quality performance by all three QB's, and the many options for pass receivers, gives a solid hope for the New Orleans Saints staying strong in the top 5 for passing and total offense throughout the regular season. Hopefully Jimmy Graham finds a way to start catching the ball like he was two years ago.

Rushing
The New Orleans Saints did not put up impressive numbers in the running game against the Houston Texans. Despite the dedication Sean Payton has promised to the running game, the 21 attempts to run the ball was a steep drop from the 33 attempts against the Oakland Raiders. Perhaps this is a tribute to the Texans run defense, or perhaps this was another case of having to come from behind in the first half. Or perhaps the coach is trying to obscure his true intentions for the regular season. However, breaking down the numbers uncovers some good comparisons to be made, leaving the impression that Payton's primary concern was actually trying to make difficult evaluations for precious roster slots, rather than trying to put up big numbers.

In the first half, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas each received 4 carries, with Ingram averaging 6.0 yards per carry to Pierre's 4.8 YPC. Khiry Robinson (5 carries, 2.2 YPC) and Travaris Cadet (4 carries, 4.0 YPC) bore the main rushing load in the second half, with P. Parker (9 yds) and A. Johnson (1 yd) each getting a carry in the third quarter. Cadet also caught the three passes that came his way, averaging 12.3 yards each, and had his 12 yard gain negated by a penalty on his one punt return. Robinson caught one of his two intended passes for 10 yards; while Parker caught one of his two intended passes for 8 yards, and added a 52-yard kickoff return.

Rushing

Yards

Attempts

Yds/Carry

Tackled for Loss

Fmbl / Lost

1st Downs

TD’s

First Half

43

8

5.4


1 (1 yd)

0

1

0

Second Half

37

11

3.4

0

0

1

0

Total

80

19

4.2

1 (1 yd)

0

2

0

Once again, New Orleans is in a difficult position with it's full stable of decent running backs. Considering the number of slots that Rob Ryan is going to need for his new defense, it's simply not going to be feasible to keep everyone on the roster (QB, RB, WR, etc) that we need to keep from getting poached on the way to the Practice Squad. Regardless, New Orleans needs to do a better job of running the ball. The fall of the Saints running game to No.23 against Houston's powerful run defense marks the first time any category has dropped below average for New Orleans thus far. It also remains the only category in which the New Orleans Saints are behind any of their NFC South opponents. Fans of the black and gold can only hope that whoever makes the final roster is able to successfully bring the heat in the running game during the regular season.

Lagniappe: The Best and the Worst in the NFL

Who currently holds the best and worst ranks in the NFL in each category?


Best
(Current #1 Rank)

Worst
(Current #32 Rank)

Offense

Texanshelmet_medium
Houston Texans

Panthershelmet_medium
Carolina Panthers

Offense

Defense

49ershelmet_medium
San Francisco 49’ers

Patriotshelmet_medium
New England Patriots

Defense

Passing

Texanshelmet_medium
Houston Texans


Bucshelmet_medium
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Passing

Rushing

Redskinshelmet_medium
Washington Redskins

Ramshelmet_medium
St. Louis Rams

Rushing

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