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Grading the New Orleans Saints Front Seven

After a brief (very brief) hiatus, I'm back and grading the New Orleans defense this time around. After much deliberation, I'm combining the linebackers and the line into the front seven, which works too closely as a unit to not be considered together. After the Saints defense shut down the pass and struggled against the run last season, I wondered why. It began, and edit, with this particular squad.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

After a one day hiatus taken in order to create a buffer, I’m back to evaluate the New Orleans Saints defense.  Initially, I was going to do the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary.  However, a lot of tape and a lot of trying to distinguish what’s what, I decided to do the front seven as one entity.  This is due to the sporadic nature of pass rushing schemes and the fact that the unit must work cohesively on any given play in order to succeed.  Furthermore, the prominence of hybrid type players like Junior Galette, an almost exclusively pass rushing OLB, further muddies the waters in distinguishing who is who in the Rob Ryan defense.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to break our front seven into two groups: coverage guys and rushing guys.  In order to do this, I took the percentage of snaps that they rushed the quarterback and the percentage of snaps that they dropped into coverage last season*.  For the new guys, it’s purely based on position.

Pass rushers: Glenn Foster, Akiem Hicks, Cam Jordan, George Uko, Lawrence Virgil, Tyrunn Walker, Moses McCray, Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Victor Butler, Broderick Bunkley and John Jenkins.

Coverage: Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, Khairie Fortt, Kevin Reddick, Spencer Hadley and Parys Haralson.

For the Saints 3-4 defense, an amoeba (or "predator" defense is oftentimes employed.  The Saints line up with 3 down linemen (almost always in a 3-point stance) and the next 4 prowl around, attempting to create match-up problems for the offensive line and try to get the quarterback to mix up the Mike, Will, Sam and Jack linebackers.  In the Saints 3-4 however, Junior Galette is almost always the Jack.  This means that he is usually the 4th pass rusher, and acts as a weakside defensive end.  Galette is one of the most unappreciated talents on the team outside of Saints fans, as he is almost as effective as the far more hailed Cam Jordan in terms of getting to the quarterback.

Jordan is, however, one of the strongest talents that the Saints have on their defense.  He works with a conjunction of speed and power in order to push offensive linemen back before working around them.  Jordan’s best move is the "dip-and-rip," in which he lowers his shoulder and swims over the offensive lineman that is trying to contain him.

Where the Saints struggle, however, is their interior.  Bunkley is a big man, but he can be contained by one player.  In a 3-4, a coach generally wants his NT to swallow up double teams, thus limiting a quarterback’s pocket.  Bunkley was oftentimes bailed out by strong coverage last season.  Jenkins is still a project, but a lot of people see strong potential in him.  The fact is, however, last year the Saints NTs did not do their jobs well, and where that shows up the most is in the running game, which is mentioned below.

The Saints pass rushing without the blitz was actually one of the strongest in the league.  In fact, according to football outsiders, the Saints were 4th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate, which accounts for down & distance, along with opponent, in addition to measuring only sacks.  This is important since it allows Ryan to use his different zones effectively, thus causing the quarterback to hold onto the ball for a quarter second too long.

As I’ve actually mentioned before, Rob Ryan defenses don’t like to blitz a whole lot.  That’s why so many of the defensive line’s sacks were coverage sacks last year, so the front 7 does have flaws.  A major hole comes in covering intermediate routes over the middle of the field.  David Hawthorne is very average in coverage and struggles to pass players off in zone (he’s actually better in man to man).  Curtis Lofton is better at covering flats, but he specializes in outlet routes.  Lofton lacks the size and speed to effectively cover a solid tight end, a major hole in the Saints defense.  I, for one, hope that the addition of Byrd will allow Ryan to use more "robber" zone looks, where a safety locks down those middle intermediate routes, not unlike how Seattle uses Kam.  No one on the Saints defense would do this as effectively as Kam, of course, as he hits harder than NO safeties are capable of, but all it takes is a little bit of fear of the middle to give receivers a case of super hearing when it comes to footsteps.

Another reason that the Saints defensive line is effective is due to their rotational strategy, and next year they’ll get even deeper.  Rotations keep fresh legs on the field while the offensive linemen opposite them get worn down from the game.  Obviously players like Jordan and Galette are every down players, but speed guys like Dawson can give the Saints a serious edge, especially on 3rd down.  In the middle, Hawthorne and Lofton were every down backers last year, so depth is less a concern there, unless Fortt steals Hawthorne’s job come pre-season.

Where the front 7 struggles, unfortunately, is the running game.  This is where Bunkley’s aforementioned incompetence comes to a head.  The 3-4 scheme is dependent upon the front 3 eating up blocks, and the next level backers filling gaps and making plays.  The Saints did not effectively do this by any means on any level last season.  They were 19th in the league against the run due to slow pursuit and poor reactions to the draw (the proverbial draw, not a literal draw play, but yeah that too).  Luckily, the offense was generally able to keep games close enough that teams had to pass in order to come out on top, but that’s not a good model to engender success, particularly for a team like the Saints.  The defense needs to step up their run D next season, if this team is to go to the next level.  Unfortunately, none of their offseason acquisitions really address the weak run defense, nor does anyone coming off of injury.  This adjustment will all come down to coaching.

One thing that is worth noting: Individual talent on the defense obviously matters, but it doesn’t have the effect that coaching to talents does.  Rob Ryan was an absolute godsend to the Saints, as he is excellent at creating ambiguity and doubt for opposing quarterbacks.  Scheming is very important to offenses, of course, but it’s even more important to a defense, as it requires players reading and reacting to plays, rather than just "doing" them.  That’s why everything that I say in this piece invariably goes back to how they’re used, because that’s what defines a defense.  It’s even more important in the secondary, which I’ll have a piece out on tomorrow.

All in all, the Saints front 7 is talented, but they need to work cerebrally.  It’s difficult for a team to be successful when they’re in the mindset that every play is a pass.  If the Saints can get smarter up front, then they’ll be one of the best defenses in the league again in 2014.  If they can’t, expect teams to exploit that weakness early & often, especially with the secondary looking like it does.  The rotational style helps, as does the presence of star players, but with so many unanswered questions (especially guys coming off of injury), it’s hard to grade this unit too high or too harshly.

Overall grade: C+/B-