Cornerback was supposed to be a position of depth for the Saints in 2016. Instead injuries have turned it into a carousel once again.
Their preseason depth chart consisted of Keenan Lewis, Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann and PJ Williams. Now, it’s been reduced to Sterling Moore, PJ Williams and Ken Crawley (Moore was inactive Sunday and Crawley was exploited throughout his time in the game).
With Breaux now out for six weeks with a broken fibula, the Saints need to make a move. Lewis was released due to injury concerns, so he likely isn’t an option. Bringing Cortland Finnegan back in for emergency help is a possibility, but unfortunately not an enviable one. The fact is, the Saints without Breaux are exposed.
Sunday, the Saints had given up just 10 points through three quarters, three of which came on a field goal after a Drew Brees fumble put the Raiders within the Saints’ 25. In the fourth, however, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen simply couldn’t account for the loss of his number one DB, and he was reduced to running a prevent shell defense that was a far cry from the exotic schemes and packages that he had been using throughout the game.
The result? The dissipation of a 24-10 second half lead and a waste of another game befitting a Hall of Famer from Drew Brees, who threw for 424 yards, four touchdowns and, most impressively, no interceptions. Even with their desperately cushioned defense, the Saints gave up a 75 yard touchdown carry that led to cries of “same old defense,” perhaps deservedly so.
The Saints will have to make some hard decisions going forward. With Sheldon Rankins already on IR, the Saints don’t have the option of stashing Breaux there during his rehab. They’ll have to cut someone in order to make room for another DB, or try to weather the storm with what they have. This may involve seeing some time in the slot from Strong Safety Kenny Vaccaro, who did spend some time rotated down during his rookie year to mixed results. Rookie Free Safety Vonn Bell may see some trial by fire as well to try to make up for the lack of depth.
Fellow rookie to the NFL Erik Harris may see some more playing time, but he and his counterpart Bell never saw the field Sunday, with veteran Roman Harper rotating in on three safety sets for the Saints.
To his credit, Crawley hasn’t let his struggles get him down. He said that “[The Saints’ secondary] competed at a high level in the game. We challenged the receivers. We didn’t just leave them open to to catch all types of balls and things like that.”
Jairus Byrd remains a mystery piece for the Saints’ defense. Rob Ryan tended to start Byrd 20-25 yards off of the line of scrimmage, and Allen seems to follow that same mold. Byrd was brought on to be a ball hawk for the Saints, but he hasn’t had much of a chance to do anything as he’s been forced to hold together a patchwork Saints’ secondary and has become more of a last line of defense.
The Saints’ defense actually almost staved off the Raiders’ comeback. On a fourth down situation, Craig Robertson was flagged for a pass interference on the sideline on a fade route. The penalty gave the Raiders an automatic first down, which Oakland quickly converted into points. The flag was due to Robertson faceguarding, and proved to be the final straw for the Saints.
The only real positives to take away from the loss defensively are their early success and Allen’s apparently successful gameplan. Perhaps with a week to adjust to the loss of Breaux, Allen can come up with a scheme to help temper the effects. He’ll have his work cut out for him, as the Saints go up against Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants next Sunday in New Jersey.