In a much anticipated showdown against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the New Orleans Saints sent flashbacks of the nightmares caused by the 2012 record-setting defense. The Saints allowed the Falcons to rack up 568 total yards of offense, which is the second most ever allowed in franchise history. Matt Ryan had a career day and threw for 448 yards, the most ever by an opposing quarterback. These are not records and numbers that we want to be seeing again just two years removed from the abashment of 2012. Was this an outlier for the Saints defense, or were the mistakes a sign of things to come for this season?
I've gone and re-watched the film from this game-mostly defense-and tried to understand the main problems. These numbers aren't in any way an indicator of the talent of this unit. I think the one thing that many people are missing when criticizing the defense is how good the Falcons offense can be. With two Pro Bowl caliber receivers on the outside and two burners in the slot, the Falcons can be a matchup nightmare for a defense. This is especially true when the Saints are trying to cover up their second corner for most of the game with safety help. The Falcons could definitely be a top five offense this year, and the Saints weren't able to stop them on Sunday.
Matt Ryan was incredible. Living in Atlanta, I've watched almost every game Matt Ryan has played in his career. This one was easily his best, and it's not even close. I've said for years that half of the struggles of the Falcons offensive line is how bad Matt Ryan is in the pocket. His footwork and ability to create time when being pressured has always been pretty bad. This wasn't the case on Sunday as he put together his most impressive effort of avoiding pressure and making plays in his career. When Ryan was hurried, he was able to use nice footwork to move around in the pocket and even roll out and make a throw on the run. When he did have time, he killed the secondary. Ryan had the highest completion percentage and QB rating in the NFL in week one when he had 2.6 seconds or more in the pocket.
The Saints stumbled upon themselves plenty. Pro Football Focus ranked the Saints at -11.3 on defense for week one, which is surprisingly only the 8th worst. The glaring weakness was obviously pass coverage at -8.8. Only the Cowboys were worse. If there's anything I hope to avoid saying again this year, it's the last sentence.
The biggest problem when watching the film is how soft of a zone the safeties played against the Falcons. Jairus Byrd was often 10 yards too deep on almost every mid-range throw by Ryan. It's smart to have respect for the WR's in Atlanta, but there is a fine line between respect and bad positioning. Part of this is probably due to the distrust in Patrick Robinson at corner as well. Play after play, the Saints were killed on corner routes and underneath throws where the safeties weren't there in time to make a play on the ball or make a tackle for a short gain. The fact that Rob Ryan never made any adjustments on this is a bit alarming.
Despite the claims that the pass rush was lacking during the game, it's not necessarily true. As I stated earlier, the hurries were there most of the game. It was more so a matter of Ryan's ability to avoid the sack, and the defensive line's inability to finish off the sack. The pass rush was ranked 17th. Cameron Jordan led all players in the NFL in week one with five QB hurries. Junior Galette was third with four QB hurries. The problem is they combined for only one QB hit and zero sacks. This is just an anomaly. If they can continue to rush the passer, the sacks and big plays will come. Galette was also the second highest ranked OLB in run rating. The criticisms for his play against the Falcons are not deserved.
What I did notice when watching the film over was the lack of push up front from the Saints. Some of the interior lineman seemed to be getting pushed around most of the game, and the numbers seem to support that. Brandon Deaderick and Brodrick Bunkley both received negative grades on PFF and were ranked 14th and 22nd among defensive tackles in week one. On the outside, Akiem Hicks played 64 snaps and had the same amount of missed tackles as tackles and QB hurries combined. Two.
David Hawthorne continued his struggle in coverage against the Falcons. He was thrown at seven times in the game, and four of them were completed for 44 yards, all of those numbers in the lower twelve for ILB's. He was ranked 8th worst among inside linebackers last season when in coverage. If Hawthorne continues to get picked on in the passing game, it could be something to worry about.
The most disappointing player this week was undoubtedly Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro was the worst rated defender at any position in week one with a -6.0 rating. To put it in perspective, his worst rated game last season was a -2.2 performance in week two against Tampa Bay. Vaccaro led the NFL in missed tackles with six and was tied with Atlanta's Dwight Lowery with the worst pass coverage ranking for safeties in week one. He missed only three tackles all last season and was one of the better safeties in the league in pass coverage. It was obviously a tough game for VC, and he knows that. I don't expect this to happen again due to what we've seen he's capable of doing each week on the field.
The most talked about position for the Saints defense is of course cornerback. The surprising statistic is Patrick Robinson was thrown at only four times in the game. Keenan Lewis was thrown at seven times, and Corey White was thrown at eight times. With that being said, all four times Robinson was thrown at, the passes were completed. The four receptions went for 87 yards and a couple were very big plays in the game. His ratings for the game are still among the worst 15 corners, and there are absolutely some points to be worried about. It's pretty obvious Rob Ryan has realized he has to hide Robinson in his schemes. He had safety help most of the game, and it seemed to handicap what Ryan could do with the defense for the most part. When Robinson was alone, big plays were made. White didn't play great, but I still believe the smarter decision would be to put him on the outside for the time being.
Those are a lot of numbers and observations, and it's likely most of them won't mean a thing in a few weeks, but there are a few concerns for the defense going forward that we need to look for improvement on. The first is how the cornerback position is treated. It's imperative that the second corner position has improvements in the coming weeks, or the Saints will continue to try to hide the weakness and limit the things they can do defensively. The interior defensive line needs to step it up. The one weakness at times for the Saints defense last year was against the run. While that wasn't the biggest problem this week, it still wasn't great, and the defensive line wasn't effective in stopping it. Bunkley and Deadrick need to play well to help the run defense.
The strangest part of it all is the missed tackles. I counted about 20 of them, ESPN credits 23, and PFF credits 16. Either way, it was the most in the league in week one. Almost everyone had some bad tackling, and it's hard to point out why it happened, but it shouldn't be something we should worry about unless it continues to occur. I think this is a pretty sound tackling team when you look at it, and they should get right back on track. Expect the Saints defense to bounce back next week against a lower tier offensive team in the Cleveland Browns.