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Much maligned Saints secondary silencing critics

The New Orleans defensive backs are playing even better than you might think.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Many people know the numbers. The New Orleans Saints defense ranked 29th against the pass in 2018. They opened this season by giving up several big plays through the air in the first few weeks, exhibiting many of the same communication errors and misdiagnosis that plagued them in the secondary early last year. The Saints defensive backs played better as the 2018 season progressed, particularly after an October trade with the New York Giants to acquire cornerback Eli Apple. Much of that improvement also had to do with the pressure generated by an outstanding New Orleans defensive line, a unit that has arguably been even more disruptive this season. Critics have even gone so far as to suggest that the Saints secondary could ultimately be the team's Achilles heel that costs them a title opportunity after two straight seasons of near misses. New Orleans has given up an average of 255 yards passing per game so far this season, ranking 19th in the league, surrendering 8 touchdown passes while intercepting two. Not terrific numbers perhaps, but certainly not shameful either. A closer look into the Saints secondary also reveals even more encouraging numbers.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Free safety Marcus Williams got off to perhaps the slowest start of any of the Saints defensive backs. Showing some of the same miscommunication on deep throws and poor tackling that he struggled with in 2018, some believed that the secondary would continue to be vulnerable against the big play. Williams has the team's only two interceptions though, and has had two more reversed by penalties. Over the past few weeks, Williams has shown terrific anticipation and the aggressiveness that is reminiscent of his All-Rookie selection of 2017, enabling his defense to limit the threat of big plays down the field.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Strong safety Vonn Bell has been the Saints most consistent defensive back of the last two seasons, and is one of the most underrated safeties in the league. He is the team's leading tackler (tied with Demario Davis), a category where he has finished first or second in all of his NFL seasons. Despite having yet to record an interception in his fourth season, Bell is always around the ball and has a penchant for the big play. He has forced six fumbles in his career, and has a career high 3 fumble recoveries so far this season, returning one for a touchdown. Bell has improved his man coverage skills in each of his years in the league, and capably steps into the slot for the defense to take on opposing tight ends or even wideouts.

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P.J. Williams is probably the weakest Saints defensive back in terms of man coverage. Williams is extremely aggressive near the line of scrimmage however, and a sure tackler on the back end or in run support. He is at his best in a slot coverage role, where he has been most effective at containing an opponent's third receiving option. Rookie defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is also earning more defensive snaps each game, and has teamed with Williams and Bell to give the Saints much improved coverage in the slot.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Marshon Lattimore is the Saints best cornerback, and one of the better all-around defensive backs in the league. He has drawn some criticism over the last two seasons, particularly early in the year, for what some have perceived as a regression from his 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year form. Lattimore is often locked up on the opponent's top receiver though, an assignment he relishes. When an elite wideout, such as the Texans DeAndre Hopkins in the opener, does have a good statistical outing, Lattimore is still normally combative and competitive. Over the last two games, Lattimore has held All-Pro wideouts Amari Cooper and Mike Evans to a combined five catches for 48 yards, including a shutout of Evans. He has not yet recorded an interception in 2019, although he did have one nullified by penalty, but Lattimore has outstanding ball skills that can give him an advantage on 50/50 throws.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Eli Apple may not garner the attention of his teammate Lattimore or be as fluid in coverage, but the 4th year pro gives the Saints an extremely talented tandem at corner. Apple may not be the prototypical shutdown cornerback, but he is physical, has solid ball skills, and has the athleticism to match up with most receivers. While his physicality will sometimes draw penalties, Apple tied for the team lead with two interceptions and was second with 9 pass breakups in just ten games with New Orleans last season. While Lattimore did a spectacular job against Tampa Bay's Evans last week, Apple was equally impressive against the Buccaneers rising star Chris Godwin. He had a spectacular interception reversed by a penalty, but kept the talented Buccaneers receiver well in check, limiting a deep Tampa passing attack.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Despite the low ranking against the pass in 2018, this is the same New Orleans secondary that held 6 of 9 opponents to less than 210 yards through the air down the stretch of the year. The Saints defensive backs are certainly benefiting from heavy pressure generated by the defense up front. Particularly from an elite and deep defensive line, allowing coordinator Dennis Allen to keep an extra defender in coverage at times and making a blitz that much more effective. To be fair though, some of the sacks and pressures have actually been due to outstanding coverage in recent weeks, causing opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer. Big plays through the air nearly cost New Orleans a win against Houston in the season opener. The Saints mostly contained Jared Goff and the Rams passing attack in week two, but a number of penalties and two throws totaling 124 yards would lead to their downfall. Since then the Saints have greatly fortified their coverage. Seattle's Russell Wilson did pass for over 400 yards in a week three Saints win, but over 250 of that came in the second half with Seattle trailing by 20 points. New Orleans would hold Wilson to just 50% completion percentage over the last two quarters though, while also having two interceptions brought back by penalty. The Saints have played suffocating pass defense over the last two games. New Orleans held a red-hot Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott to just 223 yards and no scores while picking him off once and making Cooper a nonfactor. Last Sunday's win over Tampa Bay saw New Orleans not only contain Godwin and completely shut down Evans, but hold Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston to only 10 of 21 for 133 yards until a meaningless last minute drive. The Saints outstanding defensive line and All-Pro play from Davis at linebacker already make this defense a formidable challenge for any offense they face. Continued standout play from the secondary elevates the entire defense to a championship level unit.