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The Saints Defense has Turned the Corner Yet Again

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The coverage unit has allowed the pass rush to feast

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NFL: OCT 20 Saints at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Saints, for seemingly the first time in the Sean Payton era, have found success without the high flying offense we’ve come accustomed to. Without Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater has led the Saints offense to uneven results. A couple of stinkers against Seattle and Dallas led to an explosion against the Buccaneers only for Teddy’s play to come crashing down in Jacksonville before rising from the ashes in Chicago. It’s been a wild ride for the Saints at a position usually manned by the unwavering stewardship of Brees.

Where this Saints team has stayed consistent throughout the Bridgewater era has been on defense. In typical Dennis Allen fashion, the defense floundered against the Texans and Rams in the first 2 weeks of the season before suffocating Seattle (to an extent), Dallas, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Chicago. The dominant defense has kept the Saints alive for not only a playoff spot but the number one overall seed in the NFC.

Winning defense tends to start with having good players all over the field as opposed to an offensive unit that can find ways to move the ball with a few key players. These are called strong or weak link games:

“I first became familiar with the concept of strong and weak games in The Numbers Game, a book by Chris Anderson and David Sally on soccer analytics. In it, they define a strong link game as one where the team with the best player usually wins. In contrast, in a weak link game, the team without the worst player usually wins.”

I view football offense as a strong link game. It is almost directly correlated with one player— the quarterback. Defense is a weak link game where the connectivity of the whole defense must be tight for the unit to succeed.

The Saints are currently blessed with skill at all 3 levels of the defense allowing them to not have any weak links. The defensive line boasts one of the best pass rushers (and all around defensive ends) in Cam Jordan to go along with a couple of young physical specimens in Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins.

The linebacker unit misses the youthful exuberance of Alex Anzalone, but A.J. Klein provides veteran savvy while Demario Davis has been a revelation since joining the team in the 2018 offseason. The secondary, a source of much pain and suffering during Sean Payton’s time in New Orleans, has gone from strength to strength with Marshon Lattimore, Eli Apple, Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell and PJ Williams playing the best football of their young careers.

In fact, Pro Football Focus has given the Saints defense top marks while playing man coverage this season.

The defense has also harassed quarterbacks into a slow, painful death. Cameron Jordan leads the team with 7 sacks and ranks tied for 4th in the league. Marcus Davenport has put up 12 QB hits which puts him tied for 4th in the league as well, and while he only has 3 sacks he is affecting the quarterback none the less.

This offseason there was debate over what aspect of a defense mattered more to the success of the unit: coverage or pass rush. Our collective football narrative tends to lean toward pass rush over coverage but, again, the guys at PFF dove into the data to find that coverage matters more than we think.

One of the issues in how we view football games is exactly how we view them. With the broadcast television angle zooming in on the quarterback on every passing play we become blind to anything but the offensive line versus defensive line battles. This informs the narrative, and any football coach who regularly watches the All-22 footage on a weekly basis know this is only half the story.

Coverage dictates how long a quarterback will have to hold the ball for allowing pass rush to get home. Throughout the country defensive coaches are telling their players the importance of forcing a quarterback to his 2nd read, and allowing the pass rush to work it’s magic. The coverage informs pass rush and then pass rush needs elite players for it to get home. This is where the Saints are winning; with great players on the defensive line. Whenever the coverage can force a quarterback to hold the ball, there is no doubt Cameron Jordan, et al will get home for the sack.

This is how the Saints are forcing quarterbacks to stick around in the pocket leading to their eventual demise.

Disguise

Dennis Allen has been showing offenses a heavy pressure look presnap a ton this year. The two linebackers will walk up into the open gaps and the nickelback can also line up in a blitz look depending on formation. However, he hasn’t necessarily sent that many any +1 blitzes like you saw Bill Belichick do against the Jets on Monday night. Allen likes to drop players out and often only rush 3 or 4 guys. He’ll also bring other blitzers or just stunt the 3 or 4 man rush.

Dropping from an inside gap alignment to cover targets from inside out is not easy. A lot of linebackers will instinctively lock on to the first threat coming inside and leave an outside threat open, and the Saints have been good at not doing this. I call it “breaking glass”.

Look at A.J. Klein on this play who is aligned in the B-gap to start the play. The Buccaneers are running the 2 slot receivers vertically before they adjust their routes to find an opening. Klein could easily drop, see the most inside slot receiver, and lock on to him. This would screw Marcus Williams who would be in a rough spot against the other slot receiver and the outside receiver both running vertical. Not an ideal 2 on 1 scenario. Instead Klein “breaks glass” and runs through the inside receiver to find the other vertical route. The inside route gets covered up by Demario Davis who was looking for anything to come back inside to him. By the time Jameis Winston hitches after deciding the outside slot receivers route is a no-go, he is pressured and takes a sack.

Another sack, this time against Gardner Minshew, shows the Saints in man coverage. They will again align in a heavy blitz look before dropping out and playing Cover 2 Man coverage.

With 2 safeties patrolling the deep areas of the field, the Saints man coverage defenders can allow themselves to play underneath their respective receivers. Minshew is looking to his slot receiver on the bottom first but doesn’t feel like his receiver has beaten the coverage of P.J. Williams. He then looks at the outside receiver who is locked by Marshon Lattimore. With no where to go, he stays in the pocket long enough for Cameron Jordan to destroy the Jaguars right tackle on route to the quarterback.

Getting Skinny

Like the rest of the NFL, the Saints play their fair share of Cover 3. The middle of the field safety and the cornerbacks are usually the 3 deep players in this defense. However, when a offense floods one side of the field with 3 or more receivers the defense plays out a little differently.

Here’s Cris Collinsworth explaining how that works:

When you play man coverage on the single receiver somebody underneath has to help the safety not get exposed by 2 receivers running down the seams. The weak hook player has to carry the final #3 receiver up the field. The Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch does a pretty good job, but the ball is thrown over his head when the safety peaks to the wide side of the field.

You end up playing a true zone on the wide side (Jaylon Smith is smart and ends up covering the running back in man to man in the above play) and matching man to the backside. The safety will lean heavily to the wide side because there is a hole to throw a seam pass into. Even though the Cowboys allow a touchdown on this play, they have the personnel to allow a linebacker to run with the final #3 receiver. They’re OK with that. The Saints, with A.J. Klein or Kiko Alonso, are not so inclined to allow that to happen.

Dennis Allen has brought a “skinny” tag to his Cover 3 scheme and it has helped the Saints cover these type of routes.

In this version of Cover 3, the nickel or * doesn’t have to zone off right away, he’s going to cover a vertical seam route by the outside slot receiver. Now, that seam becomes a harder throw since it essentially becomes man coverage. The nickel is in outside leverage on the receiver running vertically so the ball must be thrown inside to where the safety could make a play.

The Chicago game provided us with a good example of this playing out:

The Saints are going to rotate strong here. This means Marcus Williams, from the weakside, is going to become the deep middle of the field player and Vonn Bell, from the strong side, is going to drop low.

You can see Kiko Alonso drop deep and keep his eyes on the quarterback knowing that he has help behind in from Williams. The safety is allowed to play there because of what is going on at the top of the screen. C.J. Gardner Johnson, from the nickel position, is matching the vertical threat and staying on top. Any throw from Trubisky would have to be high and inside allowing Marcus Williams time to recover. The quarterback looks for the crossing route before checking it down and the Saints tackle the ball carrier really well, something they’ve been doing at an excellent rate of late.

The Saints are living at the intersection of pass rush and coverage and playing at an extremely high level. Even with the poor performances in the first 2 weeks accounted for, the defense ranks 8th in Football Outsiders DVOA. Dennis Allen deserves all the credit in the world for how he is deploying his elite units to destroy opposing offenses.