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2017 New Orleans Saints Keys to Success: Pound the rock and fix the defense

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In order for the Saints to return to the postseason, they must improve on defense and commit to the run game.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, the number one overall need for the New Orleans Saints has remained the same for the past several seasons: Improving the defense. It appears the team has made that their focus. In the 2015 and 2016 NFL Drafts, the Saints had 14 picks, nine of which were used on defense. They also brought in eight defensive free agents during that time, and so far, it appears they are continuing that trend in 2017. The team was able to retain defensive tackle Nick Fairley and bring in linebacker A.J. Klein from the Panthers. The Saints also traded receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for the 32nd overall pick, and moved up from 118th overall (4th round) to 103rd overall (3rd round).

The general consensus around the 11th overall pick is that the Saints will draft the top defensive end on the board. In a recent interview with John DeShazier, head coach Sean Payton gave us a good idea of what they plan to do with the additional first-rounder received in the Cooks trade. Coach Payton stated "certainly when a team calls, a team that’s looking for a receiver and we’re looking to improve our defense we’re always listening." Weighing these comments and seeing the way free agency is shaping up so far, it seems the Saints are continuing their quest to improve the defense.

Getting better on the defensive side of the ball is key if the Saints want to have a successful season, but there are some other things they should look at doing if they want to win. Looking at the team stats and doing a little bit of analysis makes it pretty clear what changes need to be made. As history shows us, the Saints most successful seasons under Sean Payton and Drew Brees have boasted some of their highest rushing attempts. When Brees keeps his passing attempts in check and they are able to control the game by handing the ball off, they win games. The offense has been elite since 2006, and because of that the team has never needed a top ranked defense to win. In fact, ranking anywhere in the ball park of 15th-22nd would bring success given the way this offense operates.

Let's use history as a guide and look at the teams offensive stats compared to their win/loss records. Over the past 11 years, the Saints have not had a losing season when Brees made less than 600 passing attempts or when the team had over 430 rushing attempts. (Refer to the chart below)

SEASON

Off Rank

Yds – Pts

Pass Att

Pass Yds

Rush Att

Rush Yds

Def Rank

Yds – Pts

Win / Loss

Record

2006

1 – 5

580

4,503

472

1,761

11 – 13

10-6

2007

4 – 12

652

4,314

392

1,466

26 – 25

7-9

2008

1 – 1

635

5,069

398

1,594

23 – 26

8-8

2009

1 – 1

544

4,355

468

2,106

25 – 20

13-3

2010

6 – 11

661

4,441

380

1,519

4 – 7

11-5

2011

1 – 2

662

5,347

431

2,127

24 – 13

13-3

2012

3 – 2

671

4,997

370

1,577

32 – 31

7-9

2013

4 – 10

651

4,918

391

1,473

4 – 4

11-5

2014

1 – 9

659

4,764

406

1,818

31 – 28

7-9

2015

2 – 8

667

4,970

397

1,491

31 – 32

7-9

2016

1 – 2

674

5,074

404

1,742

27 – 31

7-9

Brandin Cooks was part of the New Orleans Saints roster from 2014-2016, which were three of the five worst seasons since the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees. It is not Cooks' fault the team went 7-9 each season, but I am going to stick to a statement I've made several times. Cooks is a great receiver, and this is no way an attempt to degrade him, but the Saints offense was elite before he arrived and will continue to be elite after he is gone.

Now, to breakdown the numbers a bit more, I want to go into the rushing and passing stats for the 2016 season. Listed below are two charts which include the teams stats for both categories and the outcome of the game.

2016 RUSHING STATS

GAME

ATT

YDS

YD/A

LONG

20+

TD

FUM

W/L

vs. Raiders

22

88

4.0

17

0

0

0

L

vs. Giants

13

41

3.1

9

0

0

0

L

vs. Falcons

23

115

5.0

17

0

1

0

L

vs. Chargers

34

83

2.4

10

0

3

0

W

vs. Panthers

21

63

3.0

11

0

1

0

W

vs. Chiefs

22

104

4.7

13

0

0

1

L

vs. Seahawks

35

123

3.5

28

1

1

1

W

vs. 49ers

42

248

5.9

75

1

2

0

W

vs. Broncos

21

80

3.8

10

0

0

0

L

vs. Panthers

25

107

4.3

1

o

L

vs. Rams

32

209

6.5

61

2

2

0

W

vs. Lions

12

50

4.2

22

1

1

0

L

vs. Buccaneers

16

46

2.9

9

0

0

0

L

vs. Cardinals

32

130

4.1

16

0

2

0

W

vs. Buccaneers

31

123

4.0

14

0

2

0

W

vs. Falcons

23

132

5.7

38

2

2

0

L

In games where the Saints had 30 or more carries they were undefeated. Those games were vs. Chargers, Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals and Bucs.

2016 PASSING STATS

GAME

ATT

COMP

PCT

YDS

LONG

TD

INT

W/L

vs. Raiders

42

28

66.7

419

98

4

0

L

vs. Giants

44

29

65.9

247

23

1

0

L

vs. Falcons

54

36

66.7

376

36

3

1

L

vs. Chargers

36

23

63.8

192

23

2

2

W

vs. Panthers

49

34

69.3

465

87

4

1

W

vs. Chiefs

48

37

77.0

359

30

3

1

L

vs. Seahawks

35

27

77.1

252

38

1

0

W

vs. 49ers

39

28

71.7

323

32

3

0

W

vs. Broncos

29

21

72.4

293

37

3

2

L

vs. Panthers

44

35

79.5

259

2

1

L

vs. Rams

37

29

78.4

346

50

5

0

W

vs. Lions

44

31

70.4

319

39

3

1

L

vs. Buccaneers

41

25

60.9

257

38

0

3

L

vs. Cardinals

48

37

77.0

358

65

4

0

W

vs. Buccaneers

34

23

67.6

285

46

1

0

W

vs. Falcons

50

29

58.0

324

2

1

L

In games where Brees had 40 or more passing attempts the team had a losing record (2-8) and in games with less than 40 passing attempts they had a winning record (5-1).

The Saints have had five winning seasons since 2006. In each of those seasons, the team had a minimum of 400 rushing attempts with the exception of two and in both of those seasons they had the luxury of a top ranked defense. In 2016, the defense did show improvement versus 2015 and, with another defensive draft and offseason under Dennis Allen, the Saints should be able to continue that improvement. Still, they would be lucky to be ranked any higher than an average unit at best. We already have the blueprint to win with an average defense and if Sean Payton wants to taste the postseason again. This is the year he needs to return to his winning ways, and that means commit to the ground game.