The New Orleans Saints have had a lot of motion on the defensive side of the ball in recent years, especially in the secondary. With Marcus Williams, Eli Apple, and Vonn Bell all being replaced in recent years by Tyrann Mathieu, Alontae Taylor/Paulson Adebo, and Marcus Maye, the turnover has been immense. But now, we may see another transition taking place right before our very eyes, as Jordan Howden has been quickly emerging as a crucial player in this Saints defense. Starting three games so far this season, including this past week, Howden has made a substantial dent into the safety snap count for a 5th round rookie.
In this article, we will discuss why Howden has been able to make an impact so early into his career, as well as what he brings to this defense for the foreseeable future. So, without further ado, let’s get right into it.
Consistent flashes of exceptional run defense
One of the things some people may or may not notice about Howden is his ability to stop the run. He has shown flashes in each game this season of how he can help prevent large run gains, but against the Indianapolis Colts this past weekend, he had quite a few instances where he saved big plays.
The first such occurrence was likely the most obvious considering the opposing player he tackled and the nature of the tackle. Howden lines up as the free safety on this play beyond the 30-yard line and makes an exceptionally quick read to notice the run developing. He is patient and does not engage in the scrum occurring along the offensive line, and rather sits on his heels for just a second. He notices Jonathan Taylor leaking out to the left side of the field (Howden’s right side), and makes an exceptional tackle in space from behind, on a back who is notoriously hard to bring down. If he doesn’t make this tackle, Taylor at the bare minimum gets a first down.
Another example of this can be seen later in the game, where Howden lines up in the box alongside Pete Werner. He again makes a very quick diagnosis of the run play and sprints forward to meet Zack Moss at the line of scrimmage. This holds Moss to only 1 yard on the carry, as Howden slowed Moss down enough for Isaac Yiadom and Khalen Saunders to finish the tackle.
Finally, we have one more example of this against the Colts, which happened a little bit earlier in the game. Howden again lines up in the box alongside Pete Werner, and the first thing he recognizes is that this is a run play, and then he immediately starts moving. He sheds a block from Michael Pittman (#11) without slowing down whatsoever, drops behind Alec Ogletree (#85), and makes the tackle on Zack Moss.
It is clear that Howden has the ability to not only disrupt the run game but diagnose it so quickly that he can make plays at the line of scrimmage. This is a trait you see in seasoned veterans who have played the game for quite a while, which makes it even more impressive that a rookie is able to make plays of this nature.
Playstyle that evokes the ability to break up passes cleanly
This became blatantly clear to pretty much anyone that watched this past week’s game, as Howden made a pass breakup that was one of the more impressive plays of the game. In this case, he lines up in what looks to be Zone Coverage, as he starts to backpedal to keep in touch with Alec Pierce (#14) before letting him move on to the next zone. Howden then begins to follow the man in his zone (Josh Downs - #1) and stays locked in behind him through the route. When Gardner Minshew throws the pass, Howden drops into tighter coverage and sticks his left hand between Downs and the ball to break up the pass. It looks pretty clear that if Howden had not gotten his arm in there, Downs likely would have caught it as it was a well-placed pass.
On the season, he already has three pass breakups on nine targets, and with that, he also has zero penalties so far throughout the year. Being able to not only deflect 33% of passes coming your way but also to do so in a manner that does not draw any defensive penalties, is exceptionally difficult. Yet here we are, and Howden is clearly able to do that.
Versatility across the secondary
One of the most impressive parts about Howden from my perspective has been his ability to play all across the secondary. On the season so far, he has taken 252 defensive snaps (57%). In that time frame, he has played 16 snaps alongside the DL, 44 in the box, 28 in the slot, 162 as the free safety, and 2 as an outside cornerback. Even more impressive, he looks to be able to handle pretty much any of these alignments with little to no issue. Here are some images of his various alignments:
Alongside the DL:
The fact that a new defensive coordinator, one with experience coaching secondaries, is willing to give Howden this amount of snaps in his first season at so many different alignments is pretty amazing. It shows that not only Joe Woods, but Dennis Allen both have faith in Howden to be a quality defensive back for years to come. We will see how much he continues to get playing time throughout the year, but through eight weeks, he has been astounding to watch.