The New Orleans Saints evened their record at 2-2 with a 20-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins in London. It was the second straight win for the Saints, and done largely on the performance of a young defense that had been gashed for 65 points and 773 total yards in the first two games, both losses. The Saints defense rebounded over the last two games, giving up a combined 13 points and an average of 238 net yards in road wins at Carolina and over Miami.
Let's take a look at how the New Orleans defense has looked over this season's first quarter.
Grading the Saints defense
The Saints defensive line, and entire defense, is led by the talents and leadership of defensive end Cam Jordan. The 7-year veteran is the team's best run defender as well as it's best pass rusher. He already has 3 sacks on the season, and is arguably playing the best football of his career. Finding players to compliment Jordan's production at the other end position has been a challenge for New Orleans in recent seasons.
The offseason free agent signing of Alex Okafor, combined with the return to health of 3rd year Hau'oli Kikaha is playing better with each week. Kikaha has 2 sacks, and is ideally suited as a situational pass rusher. Okafor does have 1 sack, has pushed the pocket well at times and has been one of the team's strongest run defenders. Rookie Trey Hendrickson has been slowly working his way into the rotation along the outside after missing valuable time with injury in preseason.
The New Orleans defensive tackles have not been the disruptive force that the team had hoped coming into the season. The loss of Nick Fairley due to a heart condition has certainly hurt, but David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison and 2016 1st round pick Sheldon Rankins have not progressed like many had expected. Onyemata does have a sack, and has been arguably the most disruptive interior rusher, although Rankins has played much better over the last two weeks. The Saints defense will need Rankins to be a force in the middle as the season progresses.
Defensive Line Grade = B
Arguably the weakest unit on the Saints over the last 3-4 seasons has been it's linebackers, who were often overmatched athletically and consistently out of position. Offseason additions of free agents A.J. Klein and Manti T'eo, along with the 3rd round selection of Alex Anzalone to go along with 2016 leading tackler Craig Robertson caused a noticeable difference in performance during preseason.
Unfortunately, the first two games showed that this group still has a long way to go. The crew was just adequate in run support, and the backs and tight ends from both Minnesota and New England were getting open at will. The last two games have shown a great improvement in run defense, but Carolina's talented 1st round pick Christian McCaffrey still had 101 yards receiving against the Saints.
A shoulder injury suffered by Anzalone against Miami landed him on injured reserve this week, possibly endind his season and costing the Saints perhaps it's most talented player at the position. Klein looks to be the key to improvement with this unit, and New Orleans will either sign a veteran, or promote preseason star Adam Bighill from the practice squad for more snaps to go along with Robertson, Te'o, and veteran Nate Stupar.
Linebacker Grade = D
Marshon Lattimore is looking like a draft steal, even at the No. 11 pick this spring. The rookie is already the Saints top cover corner, and has graded out as one of the top cornerbacks in the league over the season's first quarter, according to Pro Football Focus. He has the athletic ability and coverage skills to lock onto the opponent's top receiver each week, and has been solid in run support as well. P.J. Williams has been a solid starter in his 3rd season, after missing all but six quarters of his first two years with injury. He has shown the coverage skills of a lockdown cornerback, aggressively shadowing wideouts in man coverage and showing good awareness in zone responsibilities. Ken Crawley has started each of the last two games, after being inactive for the first two weeks. The second year Crawley has been outstanding in man coverage, showing more confidence than a year ago and leads the Saints in pass break ups.
The play of Lattimore, Williams, and Crawley is improving with each week after being torched by the Vikings and Patriots to begin the year. Their man coverage abilities are allowing the Saints defense to blitz more often and crowd the line of scrimmage against the run. An expected return of Delvin Breaux at midseason should bolster this unit even further, and could give New Orleans one of the better cornerback groups in the league after some early struggles.
Cornerback Grade = C
Rookie 2nd round pick Marcus Williams looks like the playmaker New Orleans has lacked in the back end in recent years. He has one interception on the year already, and is putting himself in position to make plays as his experience builds confidence. Kenny Vaccaro was the subject of trade rumors in the first few weeks, and struggled in coverage down the field, but showed improved play in the wins over Miami and Carolina. Vaccaro's strength is near the line of scrimmage and coverage in intermediate zones. He does have an interception, and leads the Saints in tackles. Vonn Bell and Rafael Bush see the field in the multiple safety packages that coordinator Dennis Allen likes to use, and both are effective blitzers that can pressure an opposing backfield.
The Saints safeties were a liability in pass coverage in losses to Minnesota and New England, but each player has played solid football within their roles in recent weeks. Williams, in particular, is seeing the field and reading offenses much better, and looks to become the centerfielder for this defense.
Safety Grade = C
The New Orleans Saints defense has looked like two completely different units between the first two weeks and these last two. Such Jekyll and Hyde performances are no big surprise for a group that has so many first and second year players, but more consistency must be shown as this season advances. Improved production from the defensive line and secondary have been the keys to the Saints moving up to 12th in points allowed at the season's quarter mark.
The Saints have definitely controlled the opposition's rushing attack better after struggling on opening night against Minnesota. With quarterbacks Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston (twice each) remaining on the schedule, the Saints pass defense remains the team's biggest question. Are they the team that surrendered nearly 400 yards per game to Sam Bradford and Tom Brady? Or are they the defense that gave up just 166 yards per game through the air the last two weeks of the team’s play, with 8 sacks and 4 interceptions?
Saints Defensive Grade = C+
How would you grade the Saints defensive performance over the 1st quarter of the season?
This poll is closed