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Early takeaways from the Saints’ pass defense in 2021

Marshon Lattimore has found another gear

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

While the New Orleans Saints are still early in their 2021 NFL campaign, they’re now on the late side of the bye week. So far, there’s still a lot to be determined about just what kind of team the Saints are in 2021. After starting the season with a monumental thumping of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the Saints have traded wins and losses en route to a 3-2 record. There have certainly been ups and downs, positives and negatives in all facets of the game for Sean Payton’s men, the pass defense especially. So after five games in the season, it’s time to examine some of the prominent storylines

Marshon Lattimore: Man Coverage Magician

The Saints have legitimately one of the best man coverage cornerbacks in football in 2021 in Marshon Lattimore. A lot has been said about Lattimore’s role on the Saints moving forward after a slow and steady decline since his 2017, however Lattimore’s play has been on another level in 2021, specifically when Lattimore is in a man coverage assignment versus a zone assignment.

Per Pro Football Focus, Lattimore has been in man coverage on 33.2% of passing snaps so far in 2021 (61 out of 184 snaps). In those 61 snaps, Lattimore has been targeted 13 times, given up 4 receptions with an astonishing 7 pass-breakups. He’s also doing it while spending the majority of time this season against most team’s top wide receivers.

This play can be an example on how Lattimore’s play has taken another step up this season. McLaurin beats him on the out route at the top of the screen. Lattimore sticks with the play and is able to force McLaurin out of bounds right as he catches it, forcing the incompletion and thus the turnover on downs. This is just an exceptional play.

It’s also not just WR1’s that Lattimore is shutting down, it’s almost anyone that he’s been lined up against. Take this play against the WFT for example. Lattimore’s lined out wide against tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, who has approximately five inches and 50 pounds on the Saints corner. Doesn’t seem to matter, as Lattimore’s able to get around him with a key breakup on the slant route to force a fourth down and a field goal attempt.

Pete Werner is legit

Aside from Demario Davis, linebacker has been a problem for the Saints that they haven’t been able to solve. We’re still early into the career of the Ohio State product, but Pete Werner has stepped up as weakside linebacker that the Saints have needed. After not playing in the first two games for New Orleans, Werner stepped in with 35 snaps in Week 3 vs New England and earned himself a bigger role on the Saints defense, playing 82 snaps in the Week 5 game vs WFT.

So far on the season, Werner has been targeted 12 times in coverage for 9 catches. At a position like linebacker, however, the focus is less on not giving up catches and more on making sure that the underneath routes and dump off passes don’t turn into a big problem, and Werner has succeeded at that. When in coverage on running backs this season (admittedly, only in two games), Werner has allowed four catches to go for 15 yards and just one first down on those catches (the first down was a 3-yard catch on 2nd and 2).

This is compared to Zack Baun, who, while admittedly having a monumentally tougher matchup, was repeatedly hit over the head with a rock by Christian McCaffrey and Sam Darnold in the Week 2 contest with the Panthers. Baun has played just 9 snaps since Week 2.

Pass rush, pass rush. Wherefore art thou, pass rush?

A secondary’s best friend is a rabid pass rush. It means the secondary has to cover less, can force a QB into early throws and bad decisions and generally makes life easier for the entire defense.

So will someone please tell the Saints that.

The Saints’ pass rush this year grades as PFF’s 31st rated pass rush in all of football this season, and 8 sacks on the season back that up, even accounting for the Saints’ having an early by week. The Saints have gotten a sack on just 3.90% of coverage snaps so far in 2021, again 31st in the NFL (only ahead of Kansas City in both metrics). The biggest offender of this so far is our beloved Cameron Jordan, who has yet to takedown the quarterback so far in the 2021 season. However, there is a silver lining to this.

Cameron Jordan, despite not having a sack yet in 2021, is tied for 17th among all edge rushers in pressures (21), t-18th in QB hurries (14), and t-4th in QB hits (7). This is despite playing one less game than most of the entire NFL. Quarterbacks are recognizing the danger of Jordan and getting the ball out before he can get to them. The underlying numbers are good for Cam, however he still needs to finish the play if he wants to reach the 10-sack mark for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

The situation was made worse by the injury to Marcus Davenport, who has still failed to live up to the hype of when the Saints traded up to get him in the 2018 draft, giving up their 2019 first round pick in the process. Davenport played 26 snaps against GB before leaving with injury, picking up 2 pressures and a sack. He has not played since.

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