“Year in and year out” said Alex Anzalone in speaking about the New Orleans Saints’ goal to be a top five defense. The 2020 NFL season is different in a lot of ways, but not this one. Anzalone spoke with media on Monday and informed us of the team’s lofty goal going into the season. White it may be ambitious, it is certainly more achievable this year than for the Saints of the past.
Anzalone knows though that it takes more than desire to get there. “And that doesn’t come by saying you want to do it you have to do the things that will get you there.” While there is a lot of excitement centering around the Saints this offseason, you won’t catch any of them buying into their own hype. They all demonstrate a firm grasp on the idea that production on the field isn’t given, it’s taken.
The defense is stressing the importance of that by being intentional in even just their own vocabulary. “We don’t call them turnovers. We call them takeaways.” Anzalone told reporters before stressing the importance of turnover differential in the NFL. A sentiment that tracks considering the Saints ranked second in the NFL in 2019 with a +15 turnover differential and have ranked fourth since 2017 at +30.
It certainly helps that the offense has only committed 114 giveaways, the fewest in that span of time. The defense in 2019, however came in at just above the league average (22.2) with 23 turnovers. While that sounds like the team might have been far off from being top five with that number, just five more takeaways would have tied them for the fifth-place spot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With additions like Malcolm Jenkins, an increased role for Janoris Jenkins, and the development of young playmakers like Ceedy Duce, it is reasonable to anticipate a boost in those numbers for 2020.
Meanwhile, New Orleans was already third in the NFL with 51 sacks and fourth in rushing yards allowed. Over the last three seasons the Saints have ranked within the top 10 defending the run all three years and top five over the last two. In those categories, New Orleans should remain a top squad for 2020 as they have retained all but one starter in the front seven.
Where the largest improvement is left to be made rests in the hands of pass defense. A unit that has certainly improved on paper as compared to what Saints fans endured a few years ago.
The former Florida Gator is right. In 2014 through 2016 the defense ranked 25th, 31st, and 32nd in passing yards allowed respectively. Over the last three seasons, New Orleans ranked 15th in 2017, 29th in 2018, and 20th in 2019 with a more than 600 yard difference separating them from the top five. That is the single largest improvement you would want to see from New Orleans in 2020 as they hope to climb the rankings.
In terms of total yards, the defensive unit was just outside the top 10 at 11. So getting to a top five position would be much easier with only a 463 yard difference. The same goes for overall scoring. If the Saints defense had allowed just three fewer touchdowns (18 fewer points) they would have tied as a fifth-place scoring defense. Considering they allowed 27 passing touchdowns last season, fans could easily identify some games where those could have been trimmed. Week 10 against the Falcons? Week 14 vs. the 49ers? Take your pick.
So while the expectation of being a top five unit across several categories might feel lofty for the New Orleans defense, it isn’t at all unattainable. Essentially all that separated them from such marks last season were three touchdowns, less than 500 total yards, and five takeaways. Improving in coverage is a must for this team (as it is for any NFL club) and has been a emphasis this offseason. Now that the pieces are present on paper the focus turns to realizing potential on the field, despite the unusual offseason.
Do you think the Saints could field a top five defense in 2020? Let us know in the comments below. 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 @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.