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Saints defensive turnaround areas from last year can once again be their biggest driver

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Football Outsiders is back to answer a few of our Saints questions entering 2018. Let’s talk defense.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

As some of you may recall, SB Nation partnered up with Football Outsiders to have each respective NFL site ask several questions regarding their team. For the New Orleans Saints, Scott Kacsmar gave us his insight. Over the next several days, we’ll highlight five specific topics — and first we start with the defense.

The defensive turnaround was incredible for the Saints last year, what were the top driving areas that were improved season over season?

It was largely the pass defense that improved for the Saints. In 2015, this was the worst defense at getting pressure, but last season, the Saints finished No. 8 in pressure rate led by a career year from Cameron Jordan. The rookies and second-year players really helped contribute to an improved defense, which actually featured the youngest secondary in the NFL in the last eight seasons (snap-weighted age of 23.4 years). Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley both ranked in the top 30 in adjusted yards per pass allowed.

While Lattimore’s numbers may not blow you away, it was more about the responsibility of taking on tough assignments as a rookie that stood out. The Saints finished sixth in DVOA against No. 1 wideouts after finishing 29th in 2015 and 23rd in 2016. They finally had someone who was able to take on a Julio Jones or Mike Evans in those division games. The Saints were also No. 2 in DVOA against receivers lined up out wide after ranking 30th in 2016. Performance in the slot should improve after adding Patrick Robinson in the offseason.

I want to point out, as we do in the Saints’ essay, that the Saints really had three separate seasons last year. The defense was the worst in the league through two weeks when Minnesota and New England tore the unit apart. But during that eight-game winning streak, this was the No. 2 defense and No. 2 pass defense by DVOA. During the rest of the season, including the playoffs, the defense slipped to No. 13 overall and No. 12 against the pass, allowing a few game-winning touchdowns to Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin and -- you may have heard -- Stefon Diggs. So the defense regressed towards mediocrity down the stretch last season, but I think there’s enough young talent here to avoid the poor years that plagued this team so often from 2012 to 2016.

Last season, it appeared that it was going to be just another one of those years for the Saints defense. However, their 8-game winning streak saw Dennis Allen’s defense go on a tear. The team had their most sacks (42) since 2013 (49), and it was just the second time in the Sean Payton Era that they went over the 40 mark. All Marshon Lattimore did was come in and win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Arguably, the pass rush and secondary both got better for the Saints in 2018, with additions of Kurt Coleman, Patrick Robinson, and Marcus Davenport. Alex Okafor was re-signed, and was a key part of the team’s run defense before being lost for the season against the Bears. Along with Okafor, Trey Hendrickson is expected to make a big second-year leap and others like Al-Quadin Muhammad, Mitchell Loewen, and George Johnson are competing for a spot. Lattimore and Crawley return as the starters in the secondary, with Robinson ‘coming back home’ to man the slot.

When it’s all said and done, this could be another top defense in the NFL this season.

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