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Film Study: Saints place faith in Kwon Alexander to help with tight end coverage

It would be kind to call the Saints red zone defense abysmal this year

NFL: Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, the New Orleans Saints made a splash at the trade deadline by trading for former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Kwon Alexander. The Saints gave up a conditional fifth-round pick and Kiko Alonso to acquire the former 49er and Buccaneer. Alexander is an intriguing addition to the Saints, as based on comments from Sean Payton, he’ll compete with Alex Anzalone for playing time.

Alexander’s main role will undoubtedly be in coverage, particularly on tight ends. The Saints have been abysmal in TE coverage this year, with and it’s most apparent in the red zone. The Saints have given up six touchdowns to tight ends in the red zone this season, and they gave up at least one in each of the first four weeks. The hope, of course, is that Alexander can provide aid to remedy that situation.

There is an interesting added element to the Alexander acquisition, as his role on the Buccaneers was very different than his role on the 49ers. Alexander blitzed frequently in Tampa, which would have put him in conflict with Demario Davis’ role. Dennis Allen may utilize his versatile past to try to keep defenses off-balance.

Before seeing what Alexander can bring, it’s worth exploring what he’s trying to fix.

This is a masterclass from the Saints defense on what not to do on fourth down. The defense crashes down on the playaction, while Marcus Williams is completely taken out of the play and caught flatfooted. It’s a cascading mess of bad decisions, and it looks like C.J. Gardner-Johnson sells out for the run before losing his man Darren Waller. The result is an easy touchdown for the Raiders.

The Saints failed for the same reasons in Week 1 against the Buccaneers.

All of the linebackers plus Malcolm Jenkins bite down on the play action on first down. Davis, Anzalone and Jenkins are left completely out of position, while the safety is drawn away from the play. This looks like someone didn’t know their assignment, and it’s an easy touchdown from Tom Brady to O.J. Howard.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that sometimes you just get beat. On this play, Davis stays with Hunter Henry, but Henry beats him on the out route and Justin Herbert delivers a perfect ball. These plays aren’t as frustrating as the blown coverages, but they still need to be addressed.

Alexander displays exactly what the Saints are seeking on this play: Discipline. He stays with Zach Ertz through the play action, gives him a big enough berth to catch the ball but not so big he’ll be able to gain momentum after the catch, and he makes the play for just one yard. The Saints need that patience from their defense. If he can apply these same mechanics to the goal line, the Saints may be able to start making plays inside the 20 like they have done in previous seasons.

The same ideals are at play here. The Jets have a lot of window dressing on this play. There’s a trips bunch at the bottom of the formation, and the tight end is trying to run a natural rub on Alexander. It’s designed to isolate the running back. The 49ers, however, leave Alexander alone in coverage, and he avoids the rub by going under and makes a beeline for the outlet pass. Alexander makes the tackle for a four-yard game with tons of daylight behind him, saving a big play for the Jets.

Alexander could also prove to be a boon for a Saints defense that has slowly become more positionless. Here’s a quick look at what an Alexander-Davis blitz could look like. In this case, it would be Davis creeping up to the line of scrimmage while Davis runs a delayed blitz. This package would likely be complemented by Gardner-Johnson or Jenkins on the field to allay the shortcomings in coverage it could create. However, we’ll need a game or two to see if Alexander has lost a step or two from the middle linebacker spot if he does occasionally get paired there with Davis.

Make no mistake, Alexander makes the Saints defense better, but he doesn’t necessarily make it different. Alexander likely will play the same way Anzalone did, but he’ll hopefully bring some more discipline to the position.

This move is likely made out of the Saints missing A.J. Klein more than they counted on. It’s hard to teach patience, and Anzalone missed a lot of playing time the past few years. Klein had discipline in the red zone, and that did wonders for the Saints defense.

It will be interesting to see if this ultimately help. The smart money says it will, if only because the Saints can’t get worse in the red zone. It will take a bit of patience from fans as well.

For anyone wondering, the Saints’ biggest tests of Alexander will come in two straight weeks against Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce for the Eagles and Chiefs, respectively. While the move was made to combat them in particular, the Saints will need it to pay dividends every week from here on out to keep pace with the scorching Buccaneers in the NFC South.

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