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Revisiting the Saints’ preseason “top five defense” goal

Before the season began, Alex Anzalone shared an ambitious goal for the Saints defense. Now that the regular season has concluded, how did they do?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Back in August, Alex Anzalone visited with Saints media and told us that the goal for the New Orleans defense was to be a top five unit “in a bunch of different categories.” With the regular season in the rearview mirror and the playoffs less than a week away, let’s revisit the goal from three different areas. We’ll start with an overview look at some of the major statistical categories, then we’ll get more granular on a per play basis, before wrapping up with a look at the Saints’ defensive ability to affect the game with playmaking ability.

With a hefty preseason goal, we’ll get a look at where the Saints rank across the league across defensive play ahead of their Wild Card matchup coming up this weekend.

The 30,000 Foot View

Major Statistical Categories

Category Yards Allowed Per Game NFL Ranking
Category Yards Allowed Per Game NFL Ranking
Total Defense 310.9 4th
Passing Defense 217 5th
Rushing Defense 93.9 4th
Scoring Defense 21.1 5th

Right off the bat the answer to whether or not the Saints met their lofty goal is a resounding “yes.” In the NFL’s most common statistics, New Orleans landed firmly at or within the number five spot.

This is particularly impressive considering the struggles in the early portion of the season where the Saints defense didn’t give up a ton of yardage, but because of penalty and Red Zone inefficiency, they gave up a lot on the scoring end. That same defense went from giving up 29.4 points over the first seven games the season to giving up just 15.2 over the final nine games. That remarkable streak began with their 38-3 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The stretch from that win up until their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 13 was the realization that this team could be exactly what it had hoped before the season began.

Despite forfeiting 246 rushing yards to the Eagles and daring the Kansas City Chiefs to 179, New Orleans still holds on to their crown as one of the best rushing defenses in the NFL. impressively it doesn’t come down to simply forcing opposing offenses to through either. To help tell that story, we’ll take a look at the more granular perspective.

A More Granular Perspective

Per Attempt Stats

Category Allowed NFL Ranking
Category Allowed NFL Ranking
Yards Per Passing Attempt 6.7 4th
Passer Rating 83.3 4th
Completion % 59.8 2nd
Yards Per Carry 3.9 4th

We illustrated a moment ago the way certain elements of the game can help to mirage others. Early in the season the Saints looked like a highly effective defense because of the lack of yardage given up, but penalties shed some light on why teams simply didn’t need the yardage to put points on the board.

This can often happen in the run game. Take for instance the NFC South division rival Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons will finish the 2020 season with the 6th fewest rushing yards allowed per game. However, unlike the Saints who rank 4th in yards per carry with 3.9, the Falcons are just outside the top ten with a 4.4 average allowed. That half a yard is a big deal on a per carry basis and a good run defense is usually identified by a sub-four-yard average.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t stop at the run game for New Orleans who rank just as highly in passing game on a per attempt scale. The Saints will finish the 2020 season as one of just four teams to not allow a 300-yard passer and haven’t done so since the Week 15 shootout with the San Francisco 49ers in 2019.

The standout stat for me however is the completion percentage. Yes, the Saints did take on guys like Kendall Hinton (11%), P.J. Walker (35.7%), and Matt Ryan (62.2% through two games) this season. But they also faced Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Patrick Mahomes. The three of whom the Saints held to completion rates of 65.6%, 60.8%, and 55.4% respectively.

In the world of analytics, the Saints are also top five across several metrics including EPA per play (fourth), Dropback EPA (fifth), and Rush EPA (third). The unit also ranks second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric as well. These help to provide context beyond looking at chunks of yardage and scoring but looking at defensive efficiency and ability to limit success on a play-by-play basis.

Big Moments, Big Plays

“[We] don’t call them turnovers we call them takeaways.”

Alex Anzalone and Dennis Allen both spoke on this mentality in August. The defense wanted to generate turnovers with a greater focus on taking the ball away from opposing teams. A more bullish look at a very important element of football. This was a major focus for the Saints, particularly in the secondary, during camp who were piling on interceptions each practice. The big question was about whether or not it would translate to the field along with other key playmaking opportunities on defense.

Defensive Playmaking Statistics

Category Count NFL Ranking
Category Count NFL Ranking
Turnover Differential 9 T-3rd
Interceptions 18 T-1st
Fumble Takeaways 8 T-7th
Total Takeaways 26 T-3rd
Sacks 45 7th

Here is where we do start to fins some statistics where New Orleans did not enter the top five. But before we get to one of those in particular that’s worth highlighting, we should discuss the fact that New Orleans tied for the most interceptions in the league in 2020 with 18.

This was a place where the Saints really went hot and cold. The worst part being that while the hot stretches were on fire, their coldest stretches were ice cold. They’ll benefit greatly to be on the warmer side of things in the playoffs.

Through the first seven games of the season (Weeks 1-8), the Saints only intercepted four passes. Over the next four weeks (9-12), the secondary would go on to add nine more interceptions to that total. They would then spend the next four games from Week 13 to Week 16 with zero picks before piling on five to close out the season against the Panthers.

If the pattern is going to continue over a four-game period, that would get them through the Conference Championship, can’t afford to go cold in the playoffs or once you reach the Super Bowl. But regardless of the cadence, New Orleans earned a spot atop the league here, while ranking int he top five with total takeaways and turnover differential (the comparison of takeaways minus giveaways).

Now, let’s not go without pointing out the negative area here. Top ten is great, but ranking seventh in the NFL in sacks is disappointing for this unit. They racked up 50 sacks last season and the general concusses was that this group would only get better in 2020. Unfortunately, their sack total dropped to 45, which is still the third highest total in the Sean Payton era but simply does not live up to expectation.

One player in particular was widely expected to take his next step, Marcus Davenport. The 2018 first-round pick followed up a six-sack season with only 1.5 this year. And while the sack numbers aren’t all that matters by any means, his pass rushing presence just wasn’t up to snuff in general. He totaled 34 total pressures according to Pro Football Focus which ranks fourth on the team, 12 fewer than interior defensive lineman David Onyemata, and only one more than linebacker Demario Davis.

Davenport will be going into a contract season next year with a fifth-year option to be picked up. The playoffs are an opportunity to showcase some of the flashes we saw when he did get on the field for the first time this season after missing the first quarter of games.

Can’t talk about sacks without acknowledging Trey Hendrickson finishing the season tied for second in the NFL with Los Angeles Rams two-time DPOY Aaron Donald with 13.5.

An effective pass rush will be incredibly important in the playoffs.

Playoff Improvement

Despite fulfilling their top-five aspirations across a ton of categories and NFL rankings, there are two places where New Orleans can still stand to improve in the playoffs. Come the postseason, competition is (usually) much more competitive and much more efficient. That’s how teams get to the playoffs int he first place.

With that in mind the Saints defense will focus on improving their third down and Red Zone defense.

New Orleans is just within the top ten allowing a 38.2% conversion percentage on third down. Now, that’s not terribly by any means and they’re coming off of a game wherein they held Carolina to only 1 of 9 on third down. But, with the goal being top five, there’s room for improvement.

When Anzalone and the defense set their top five goal, the idea was to be one of the top five best teams, not a top five worst. In the Red Zone, New Orleans has consistently struggled throughout the season. New Orleans has allowed 34 touchdowns on 50 possessions in scoring position this season. That 68.0% rate is the fourth highest allowed in the NFL.

However, this metric is just like third down efficiency. New Orleans allowed only one score (touchdown or field goal) against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday on four Red Zone possessions. We can write that off as simply being poor play by Carolina, but it’s worth noting that two of the three failed possessions came on interceptions in the endzone that were more than just “right place, right time” plays. Not to mention the team was missing three players in the secondary and lost Kwon Alexander for the season the week before.

If New Orleans can improve in these two areas, turn up the pressure on the quarterback a bit, and remain dominant where they’ve performed all season, they can carry the NFL’s best defense into the playoffs. Top five was great for the regular season - now the focus has to shift to being the absolute best as they enter win-or-go-home territory.

Did you expect a top five defensive performance this season? 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 @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.