Between a slew of injuries on defense and frustrating inconsistencies on offense, 2016 has been a year to forget for New Orleans Saints fans.
The popular thought goes that the Saints live and die with Drew Brees, and that sentiment can even be heard from within New Orleans’ locker room.
However, this roster is not completely trash as some people believe: in fact, there are silver linings to be found in individual performances on both sides of the ball.
Veteran sixth-year running back Mark Ingram has the second-most rushing yards of his career (940), with his standout 2014 Pro Bowl season looking ready to topple at 964 rushing yards. He has already matched his 2014 scoring total of nine total touchdowns from scrimmage. With 60 more yards, he can hit 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in the NFL.
Ingram’s rate of yards per carry (5.1) is the best in his career, and his admirable performance as a receiver - hauling in 40 of 50 targets - has turned into the second-most receiving yards (290) of his career, trailing 2015’s yardage (405).
With just 15 yards on the ground and another rushing touchdown, Ingram can establish new career highs as a pro. His historical significance should also be noted: Ingram’s career rushing yards (4,135) are trailing only Dalton Hilliard (4,164), George Rogers (4,267), and Deuce McAllister (6,096) in the Saints’ record books. Ingram can become third all-time in rushing with 30 yards this weekend, but a great game and 133 yards could rank behind only Deuce himself.
2011’s other first-round pick, defensive end Cameron Jordan, is playing again at a unheralded but high level. Jordan is ranked ninth-all time in Saints history in sacks (46.5) and can probably hit eighth against the Falcons by passing Charles Grant (47.0). Jordan is also ranked ninth in passes deflected (30), again just behind Grant (31).
It’s unlikely given the Falcons’ low allowed sack rate (7.2 percent of dropbacks) but a huge game from Jordan can at least get him in punching distance of La’Roi Glover (50.0 career sacks) and Joe Johnson (50.5). Here’s hoping.
Jordan’s 7.5 sacks in 2016 are tied with his 2014 season for the fourth-best of his career, but his pass deflections (6) are tied with his 2011 debut for the most. Jordan is also locked in a dead heat with Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon for the most tackles for loss among all defenders (17.0). The Saints will need a big day from Jordan to leave Atlanta with a win.
To look back at the offense, quarterback Drew Brees needs only 142 passing yards to continue his streak of 5,000-yard seasons. Brees has thrown a touchdown to nine different players, seven of them catching multiple scores. We take his Hall of Fame-bound performances for granted.
However, Brees has benefited from the best wide receiver corps he’s ever had in New Orleans. Brandin Cooks (111 targets), Michael Thomas (107), and Willie Snead (100) are the first trio of wide receivers to each have 100 or more targets in the same season in Saints history. They combine for 20 of Brees’ 35 touchdowns and 60.6 percent of his passing yards.
Cooks has already passed the 1,000-yard mark with 1,154 receiving yards, but rookie wideout Thomas isn’t far behind (981). Snead is a long shot to join that club with only 813 yards in his second season.
Over at tight end, free agent signee Coby Fleener has caught flak for his inconsistent hands but his catch rate (63.5 percent) is nearly the best of his career; Fleener caught 64.3 percent of his targets in 2015, but averaged 3.5 fewer yards per catch. Fleener’s marks in yards per catch (12.6) and yards per game (39.5) are both second-best in his career, so there’s reason for optimism in another year catching passes from Brees.
Back on defense, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has had a career revival with four sacks in only eight game appearances; his career-best came back in 2012 with 4.5 sacks. Ellerbe is also tied with rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in sacks for third-best on the defense.
The Saints took a gamble on defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who is playing on his third team in three years. So far that gamble has paid off to the tune of 5.5 sacks, second-best on the team, and Fairley’s best production since a 6.0 sack 2013 season. Fairley is an important piece to the defensive line and his free agency activity in the spring will be fascinating.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, Atlanta Falcons linebacker/defensive end Vic Beasley has set his sights on 20 career sacks after posting an NFL-best 14.5 sacks in his second year and only 4 sacks in his rookie debut. Beasley has also racked up six forced fumbles in 2016 for a career total of 8. For Brees’ sake, let’s hope Beasley leaves the Georgia Dome emptyhanded.
On the Falcons’ offense, running back Devonta Freeman is looking to hit 1,000 yards rushing. He doesn’t have much ground to cover thanks to 983 yards picked up in his first 15 games. Freeman logged an absurd 152 yards on the ground against the Saints back in Week 3, but the Saints haven’t allowed a single player to log 100 or more yards on their defense since Ellerbe and Rankins both returned to action against the San Francisco 49ers way back in Week 8.
With not much to look forward to after this game, Saints fans should try to enjoy the moment and cheer for this individual victories.