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Tee’s Corner: Return to the Island

Protecting the zone.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Cincinnati Bengals
Savage Life
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

What up tho? Welcome to the first edition of Tee’s Corner for 2018! I’m ready to offer my own views and opinions on the state of the New Orleans Saints secondary and very glad that I did not share my opinion after week one. In fact, any opinion that would have come out within the first month, would’ve painted a horrible picture of failure, doom, and gloom. Or not. I’m a fairly optimistic writer and I like to analyze corners and give them a chance to settle in before I call for their heads. Let’s get to it!

I’ll take a look at the entire starting secondary and we’ll start with the safety position. We’ll then taking a look at the 3 cornerbacks who get the most snaps. If I have to point out the weakest link in the secondary as of today, my attention immediately shifts to strong safety. The position is manned by Vonn Bell (PFF 72.4, #31 S) and Kurt Coleman (PFF 60.0, #70 S). The results have been mixed at best and in some cases very bad. In run support, both Bell and Coleman have been good. The problem lies in their ability to cover tight ends and sometimes running backs.

Bell has actually regressed a tad bit in coverage in comparison to 2017 and he is also getting home less on blitzes going from 4.5 last year to 0 in 2018. Coleman has completely fallen off from his play with the Panthers, and is being out-snapped by Bell. As great as the signing of Demario Davis has been, signing Coleman seems like a dud so far. Fortunately, second year free safety Marcus Williams (PFF 74.5, #26 S) is playing at a very high level and shows no signs of a hangover from the 2017-18 playoffs. Williams has remained consistent and allows defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to be flexible in his coverage on the back end. After a rocky week one that seemed to overwhelm the young player, he’s settled into a groove and is stopping the big play, essentially eliminating long gains by the opposition.

The cornerback position has seen its fair share of ups and downs in 2018 but a savvy acquisition, just before the trade deadline has proven to be vital to improving the defense. After starting the season with confidence and returning starters Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, the Saints added one of the best slot/nickel CBs of 2017 in Patrick Robinson. The defense looked set to continue its upward trend in 2018. All it took was a little Fitzmagic to reveal a glaring weakness in the defense - the steep decline of Ken Crawley. I will not use this article to shame a player, so I will say that a number of things seem to have negatively impacted his play including poor match-ups, confidence, and lost physicality, and piling up penalties. Regardless of the reason, there was a ripple effect throughout the secondary.

After several weeks of sketchy play in the secondary, New Orleans made a move and traded for former 1st round pick Eli Apple (PFF 57.6, #96 CB). A move that would pay dividends in many ways. Right about the time the pass rush started to find its way, Apple arrived to provide a perceived bandage opposite Marshon Lattimore (PFF 74.6, #22 CB), that stopped the hemorrhaging. What actually happened is the Saints found a quality #2 CB who can neutralize opposing #1 WRs (with a little safety help) or blanket opposing #2 WRs. His 2 best performances thus far have come against the Bengals and Bucs, Here he allowed a total of 3 catches on 14 targets for 21 yards. It hasn’t all been sweet as Apple had a very rough first half against the Cowboys, but compared to the early season struggles by the Saints #2 CB, he’s doing a good job.

Lattimore also started the season with a rough opening day versus the Bucs. He soon found his way back to high quality reps in week 3 versus the Falcons. After rookie receiver Calvin Ridley had an insanely productive first half facing P.J. Williams (PFF 55.2, #102 CB) and Crawley, Lattimore manned up on him and essentially shut him down after the first half. Finally rounding into form and football shape, Lattimore began his rise back up the NFL CB rankings. Facing Joe Flacco, Lattimore allowed 1 catch on 6 attempts for eleven yards and a 39.6 passer rating his way. Facing the Eagles, Marshon allowed a passer rating of 16.7 on throws into his coverage, allowing 2 completions for 8 yards and an interception.

The slot was supposed to be manned by Patrick Robinson this season. That was cut short by injury versus the Falcons. P.J. Williams was given his shot at covering opponents #3 WRs. The truth is, Williams has some good and bad moments. Often on back to back plays and it is quite possible that he has sometimes been spared being targeted more frequently, because Apple is vulnerable as well. That said, Williams is often penalized for the most ticky-tacky amounts of contact and sees his fair amount of flags. When he is on, P.J. is pretty good. He can be physical at the line or play off in the slot, and really cover big and small receivers on most routes. As long as expectations are tempered, you can see the true value of this young player.

In my own long-winded way, I wanted to share my impression of the Saints secondary so far. My takeaway is that besides Lattimore and M. Williams who would be good anywhere, these players are most cohesive as a unit, having built a connection and chemistry. The reputation earned by the group that played the first 3 or four games is branded in the minds of many, but the reality is that this group has become opportunistic and is limiting the big play. I am happy with the progress and as long as this group stays focused and the pass rush continues to thrive, I see this unit getting better.

As always, thanks for reading, Be Cool Who Dats!