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Film Study: The $6 Million Question

What’s going wrong in the New Orleans Saints secondary?

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“That’s the $6 million question right now.”

When New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton was asked on why his secondary was the victim to another defensive breakdown that led to a 74-yard touchdown during Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers, that was Payton’s response. Why is a Saints secondary that has been a strength of the team over the past three seasons suddenly giving up 50+ yard touchdowns seemingly once a game?

The Saints secondary has seen some awful regression so far in 2020, and while it’s not as bad as the defenses of the mid-2010’s that dragged the team’s record to 7-9 for three straight seasons, it’s been bad enough to keep the Saints opponents in nearly every game they’ve played this season.

Let’s talk about the aforementioned coverage bust that led to this 74-yard touchdown to D.J. Moore on Sunday. The Saints deploy what looks like a Cover 2 look with Marcus Williams in charge of the right side of the field and Malcolm Jenkins on the left. D.J. Moore is flanked by Curtis Samuel on the left side of the offense, and when Samuel cuts outside for an out route, that draws in Williams.

Jenkins, on the other hand, first has his eyes on tight end Ian Thomas, who runs a short in route that’s easily defended by Demario Davis. By the time Jenkins tries to drop back, Moore is already well past him with acres of open space. Bridgewater hits the throw, and the Panthers tie the game.

Without being in the room, it’s tough to say exactly who’s at fault for this play, and it’s likely more than one person at fault. With the way Williams broke down on that Samuel out route, it’s clear he thought he had help in the center of the field from Jenkins. Jenkins looks like he bit a little too hard on that Ian Thomas in route where there was much more help, and with him being the deepest man back, it’s likely the call was for him to have all deep middle of the field responsibility, which is why Moore had so much open space when Jenkins played too far down.

This is Jenkins’ first year back in New Orleans after a six-year stint in Philadelphia. It’s entirely possible that Jenkins and the rest of the secondary hasn’t built up the chemistry to avoid mistakes like this, to know where the other’s going to be at any given time so that others know when to be aggressive and when to play back. This was a case of both Jenkins and Williams being too aggressive and not knowing where the other was going to be, and it bit the Saints hard.

Looking back at the Week 5 Monday Night game vs the Chargers, we can see Williams’s aggressiveness once again cost the Saints, as he bites on a crossing route that’s already well covered and leaves Lattimore out to dry on a 44-yard gain. Again, it’s unclear if Williams is instructed to do this by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen or if Williams is freestyling to make plays. Either way, the Saints secondary again is woefully out of position for another deep ball.

Another case where the Saints secondary members don’t know where their teammates are. Patrick Robinson thinks that he has P.J. Williams helping him over the top. He does not. Result? Mike Williams walking into the endzone from 64 yards out.

Well, it’s clear *someone’s* supposed to cover the entire left-hand side of the field. Fairly confident in saying Dennis Allen just forget about that side. However, it’s not exactly clear *who* was supposed to cover it. Either Malcolm Jenkins played a little too hard to the right or Patrick Robinson decided to play man coverage on this drag route when everyone else played zone. Result is the same either way, Danny Amendola picking up 50 yards.

This piece could go on and on about the various costly mistakes that this secondary has made over the first six games of the season. These were just four of the seven passing plays that the Saints have let go for 30+ yards this season, and that’s before they’ve played Patrick Mahomes. These mistakes can be easily exploited by opposing teams and can continue to bite the Saints in the backside like they’ve done so far this season. If the Saints want to be serious Super Bowl contenders, then eliminating these mistakes is an absolute need, otherwise they could again end up on the couch early come January.