The scoreboard might not have shown it, but it was clear watching the game live — The New Orleans Saints defense was carrying Drew Brees and the offense against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
Despite 3-and-out after 3-and-out by the Saints O, and despite Patrick Mahomes making plays only Patrick Mahomes is capable of, they just kept getting stops in key moments that kept their team in the game.
Ultimately losing the game 32-29, their impressive performance went a lot deeper than the box score.
Facing by far the best offense and quarterback in the league, they deployed coverages and pressured well enough to make them work for every point, even though they were on the field for over two-thirds of the game.
Eventually, they broke down and Mahomes just started making things happen that are basically impossible to defend. But overall, it was a really solid game plan that would’ve worked had the offense not crapped all over themselves for the majority of the game.
They held Mahomes to his worst outing of the year in yards per attempt (5.4) and net yards per attempt.
Patrick Mahomes was averaging 7.9 net yards per attempt going into Week 15 per EDJ. The #Saints held him to 4.55 this weekend dropping his season average to 7.62.— Ross Jackson (@RossJacksonNOLA) December 22, 2020
That 4.55 notch is less than Carson Wentz's league-worst average among qualifying QBs at 4.71.
And his second-worst in estimated points added (EPA) per play.
They also sacked him four times, which was the most he’s been sacked all year.
The Saints actually averaged more yards per play (5.5) than the Chiefs did (4.5), but the problem is KC had 40 more plays to run than NOLA offensively — 92 vs. 52.
It’s hard to win games when you’re that inept offensively, and I’ll dive into that side of the ball later this week.
But the point is this defense is legit, and they showed it against the best of the best.
Now, what did they do exactly to make things tough on this juggernaut offense? Well, let me show you.
Mixing up coverages and playing the pass
Dennis Allen deployed an almost entirely 2-high defense Sunday. And while it resulted in giving up some yardage on the ground later in the game, it limited a lot of the explosive plays the Chiefs rely on week in and week out.
As ESPN’s Matt Bowen pointed out on Twitter, they played a lot of split-safety coverage and were cutting off deep crossers all game.
More #Chiefs-#Saints— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) December 21, 2020
Have to limit explosive plays to compete with Mahomes/KC.
Here’s the same coverage (Quarters “lock”) we broke down on @NFLMatchup...
Safeties take away the deep corner/over vs. Hill. Really good by Jenkins (speed turn).
Coverage + rush (Granderson). pic.twitter.com/RPFKIdeo9S
The Chiefs have a ton of speed at receiver and love running deep, intersecting crossers to utilize that speed.
The Saints run a lot of Cover 2 Man. So during this game, what they did when they ran it was use the safety opposite of the trips side to cut off any crossers and basically slingshot the other safety behind him to catch anything over the top.
It worked to perfection on this play, in large part because of Marcus Williams, who had a hell of a game.
The Chiefs run a deep seam/crosser with Mecole Hardman, and pick off his man defender (Chauncey Gardner-Johnson). P.J. Williams is the safety on the opposite side of the field sitting underneath the crosser, and Marcus Williams is the one slingshot-ing over the top.
Williams uses his closing speed and recognition to lay the hammer down on Hardman with a clean, legal hit to bring up fourth down.
They also showed some unique looks bracketing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, in addition to rotating to some disguised Cover 1 Man looks from two-high.
Just like the Quarters and other two-high zone looks Bowen brought up, they all had the same thing in mind — cutting off crossers.
Between good scheme and execution, as well as guys like Williams, CJGJ and Marshon Lattimore making plays on the ball, they were able to limit Mahomes to 0/6 on throws 20+ yards downfield. I don’t care what happened in the game, you’ll take that performance from your secondary against that offense any day of the week.
Getting home with pressure
The coverage was really good on Sunday, but as there always will be, there were a few plays where they let guys get behind them for what could’ve been big plays. Lucky for them, the pass rush was giving KC fits all night and got home on those plays to prevent explosive plays.
Not just on these plays though. They were moving Mahomes off his spot all night.
The #Saints had six guys yesterday that got four or more pressures against the #Chiefs, led by six for Trey Hendrickson— Eric Eager (@PFF_Eric) December 21, 2020
Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata had monster games, combining for 11 pressures. Cam Jordan was also having a solid game with four pressures, before he forgot the right tackle wasn’t a punching bag.
But the guy I was most enamored with was Carl Granderson. He had the best pressure rate on the team by far, with five pressures, three QB hits and a sack on 14 less pass-rushing snaps that Trey Hendrickson.
That entire unit is absolutely lethal, and it caused problems for Mahomes.
Take this play for example. Hardman is going to come wide open as no one carries him up the field, but Sheldon Rankins gets in Mahomes’ face and causes an errant throw.
And Hendrickson prevented a big third-and-long from being converted with a hit in the second quarter.
Hill is open in the middle of the field, but it doesn’t matter when T-Rex gets there that quickly off the edge.
Ultimately, this defense did just about all it could, considering the circumstances.
In the second half, the Chiefs started to figure out they could run the ball against the Saints front because so many guys were dedicated to the pass and two safeties were back. Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell combined for 144 yards rushing on 29 attempts just running against light six-man boxes.
Not to mention, Mahomes was just pulling big plays out of his hat when he’d get out of the pocket, even after things were covered perfectly downfield.
You have to imagine fatigue was setting in for them late in the game with how long they’d been on the field and how hard they played.
But all in all, I agree with Sean Payton, who said after the game that they “played their hearts out.”
If they play like that in the playoffs and the offense gets back to being what it should be, watch out NFC. The Saints are coming.
How did you think the defense played on Sunday? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.