The New Orleans Saints came into the 2018 season with high expectations for their defense. Their 2017 defense, led by a young corps of playmakers, was a vastly improved unit that helped lead the team to an NFC South title and a playoff berth. Those expectations were sent reeling after giving up over 400 yards passing to Tampa Bay in a season opening loss, and a pass defense that looked helpless over the first month of the year. Defensive improvement in some areas have been evident over the course of the Saints seven game winning streak since that opener, and the team does have some key playmakers on this side of the ball. With half of New Orleans' regular season complete, let's grade the team's first half defensive performance.
The team leader on the defensive side of the ball is All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is having another standout campaign. Jordan has a team best five sacks, leads the team in quarterback pressures and tackles for loss, as well as being an excellent run defender. While Jordan is firmly among the best defensive linemen in the NFL, his linemates are finally playing up to his equal. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the 12th overall selection in the 2016 draft, has been a disruptive force this season. He has already matched his career high with 4 sacks, is second on the team in tackles for loss and quarterback pressures, and has taken up residence in the opposing backfield even against double and triple team blocking. Another top draft choice along the line is defensive end Marcus Davenport, who the Saints traded up to draft with the 14th overall pick this past spring. Davenport impressed early on with his natural pass rushing skills, he has four sacks, and was earning more snaps weekly due to his improving skills at defending the run. He is expected to miss a few weeks due to a toe injury, but has already established himself as a difference maker up front. It isn't just high draft picks that are making their presence felt up front. Undrafted rookie free agent Taylor Stallworth has been a handful for blockers from his defensive tackle position as both a run stuffer and pass rusher. Mid-round picks in 2015 and 2016, respectively, Tyeler Davison and David Onyemata give the Saints one of the deepest and most skilled defensive tackle crews in the league. End Alex Okafor looks fully recovered from an Achilles injury suffered at mid-season a year ago, and provides very good run defense and underrated pass rush skills while filling in for Davenport. Trey Hendrickson, a third round pick in 2017, gives the team good depth at defensive end. The Saints defensive line has been responsible for 15 of the defense's 17 sacks, and have largely dominated opposing offensive lines, helping New Orleans to a top ranked run defense.
Defensive line grade = B
The offseason addition of free agent linebacker Demario Davis has added an overall athleticism, physicality, and a skillset at linebacker that the team has not had in quite some time. Davis leads the team with 62 tackles, has added 2 sacks, and is tied for second in tackles for loss. He has given the defense a sideline to sideline every down force, and can skillfully play any of the linebacking positions. A.J. Klein is second on the team in tackles (42), and has been a force against the run along with Davis, can be an effective blitzer, while also holding up adequately in pass coverage. Alex Anzalone has been able to stay on the field, and is beginning to show why the Saints thought so highly of him as a 3rd round draft choice in 2017. Anzalone may be the team's most athletic linebacker, on display with his athletic interception in a victory over the Rams. He flows to the ball well against the run and has been effective in his drops in pass coverage. Manti Te'o has struggled with injuries, but is a strong run defender when in the lineup. Craig Robertson has not seen many defensive snaps in 2018, but has been a special teams leader and is a proven versatile linebacker able to fill in at any of the linebacker spots. New Orleans has been able to match up with tight ends and running backs in pass coverage, long a team weakness, thanks to a linebacker unit that may be the deepest and most versatile of any during coach Sean Payton's time in New Orleans.
Linebacker grade = B-
Second year cornerback Marshon Lattimore has not played quite to the level that earned him a Pro Bowl berth and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as the 11th overall pick last year. He is still the Saints best defensive back, often locking up with the opponent's top receiver. Lattimore, who has an interception and two fumble recoveries this season, has played much better in recent weeks, often forcing quarterbacks to look another way. That other way has often been in the direction of cornerbacks Ken Crawley or P.J. Williams, who have each badly regressed and are often the defense's biggest liability. Williams has made a few key plays in wins over the Vikings and Rams, is a sound tackler, and is able to stay with most receivers in coverage, but still struggles with ball awareness. The struggles of Crawley and Williams, along with an injury to corner Patrick Robinson, forced the Saints to make a trade for former Giants cornerback Eli Apple at the trade deadline. Apple, the 10th overall pick of the 2016 draft from Ohio State, has played well in his first two games with his new team. He gives the Saints the type of man to man coverage ability that compliments Lattimore's skillset perfectly. Another young New Orleans playmaker who struggled early on was second year free safety Marcus Williams, an All-Rookie team member in 2017. Communication on the back end of the defense struggled, and was evident in the results. Free agent safety Kurt Coleman was expected to add a veteran presence to the young secondary when added from division rival Carolina, but has done little when in the lineup. Fellow safety Vonn Bell, who struggled during preseason, has taken over most of Coleman's expected snaps and played well. Lattimore, Apple, and Bell were teammates in an outstanding Ohio State secondary, and communication in deep coverage has gotten progressively better.
Defensive back grade = D
The Saints defense has dominated opposing offenses in the run game. They rank 1st in both run yards surrendered and opposing yards per carry. A midseason favorite for NFL M.V.P., Rams running back Todd Gurley, was held to just 68 yards on the ground and 79 total yards a week ago. New Orleans has held every team but one, Tampa Bay in the season opener, to under 100 yards rushing as a team. The pass defense, particularly deficiencies in the secondary, continue to be a major concern. The Saints have allowed four quarterbacks to throw for over 350 yards and seven wideouts over 100 yards receiving. Although able to pressure passers well up front, they must be more consistent, and must be able to prevent the backbreaking big plays deep. Eli Apple may prove to be a good compliment to Lattimore in coverage, and they will benefit greatly from a hopeful return to the lineup of Patrick Robinson later this year. One of the glaring differences between this year's defense and it's 2017 counterpart is the ability to create turnovers. The Saints have only 4 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries this year, numbers that must improve if this defense is going to be a reason that the New Orleans Saints remain in the hunt for a championship.
1st half defensive M.V.P. = Rankins
1st half defensive grade = C-
What is your mid-term grade for the Saints defense?
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