Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) reacts in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints defense a top unit in their own right

When it comes to the New Orleans Saints, the discussion has always been about how electric their offense is with Drew Brees at the helm and an arsenal of impressive weapons. Jimmy Graham eats linebackers and safeties up for lunch, Marques Colston might be the league’s most consistent receiver, Brandin Cooks could be a big-time weapon in his first year, Kenny Stills has a whole lot of speed to burn, Pierre Thomas is a top-notch pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Nick Toon and Joe Morgan have some savory upside. The running game will also be better next year, because Mark Ingram showed some signs of life last year and Khiry Robinson has plenty of people buzzing due to his potential.

The Saints offense will continue to be one of the most dominant in the NFL, and they had the fourth-most yards in the league with a whopping 7.1 net yards per attempt through the air. With an improved running game, their average of 3.8 yards per game last season will be closer to 4.2, which is about the league average.

Interestingly enough, the Saints defense allowed the fourth-least points, as well as the fourth-least yards. Overall stats don’t beat out rate stats, so I’ll lay down two numbers for you. The Saints were seventh in the league with juts 5.6 net yards per attempt allowed, but they were 28th in the league in run defense by allowing 4.6 yards per carry.

The key for the Saints on offense and defense will be improving in the running game, and there might be more questions about that on the defensive side of the ball after the disappointing play of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne (they combined to miss 28 tackles, per the Pro Football Focus).

It’s incredible to think that the Saints had one of the top ten pass defenses in the NFL last season despite starting Malcom Jenkins, who will hopefully improve with the Philadelphia Eagles, and giving significant snaps to Roman Harper at safety. Rob Ryan helped the Saints become a fearsome team against passers by terrorizing quarterbacks with breakout star Cameron Jordan and the quick Junior Galette, as well as employing Keenan Lewis in the difficult role as a shadowing, press corner. Next season, the Saints should have a top five unit against the pass, and the addition of Jairus Byrd is one  that will have a profound trickle-down effect on the rest of the defense.

If you ask Seattle Seahawks fans who the most valuable player is on their legendary defense, most of them will name Earl Thomas over the seemingly more decorated Richard Sherman, and several fans will name Thomas in a heartbeat. In fact, a few of those fans will state that Sherman is the more impressive player, but Thomas has more value to the defense. Why? Free safeties are placed at a premium in this league, because their ability to shut off the deep passing game opens up everything in at least the same way that a shutdown corner frees up other players. Darrelle Revis let the New York Jets blitz more often, take out the opponent’s best weapon in the passing game, and give other defensive backs easier assignments. Thomas allows Seahawks DBs to gamble more often for turnovers, because they know that their stud FS is there to clean up the vertical threats who slip past the corners.

Byrd isn’t as good as Thomas, but that’s mostly because he isn’t as fast as the Black Pearl of free safeties. However, the former Buffalo Bills star is a more consistent tackler than Thomas, and he has similar instincts and ball skills. This is a guy in the prime of his career with 22 receptions in five seasons, and he’s as safe and consistent as it gets at the position. Nobody has been playing at a high level as a coverage free safety for longer, and he also brings positive run defense to the table (plenty of tackles and forced fumbles in his career).

Lewis is going to continue to lock up with No. 1 receivers next season, and he had a breakout year under Ryan. It’s not easy to play physical against top players, but that’s exactly what he was able to do. I’ll say the classic “He’s no elite player this (Revis) or elite player that (Sherman)”, but he did have four interceptions last season while holding opposing pass-catchers to a satanic 66.6 QB Rating, per PFF, and allowed just a 54.5% completion percentage.

As Sherman and his former teammate Brandon Browner can attest (Aqib Talib can say the same during his time playing in front of Devin McCourty on the New England Patriots), a great coverage safety is a physical cornerback’s best friend. In the case of Sherman, it can accentuate a CB’s qualities, especially when it comes to their ability to make plays on the ball. In the case of Browner, it can make them a whole lot better.

Press coverage is a difficult game, because it can lead to big plays for offenses if the corner is overly aggressive and bites on a well-executed double move. Lewis wasn’t beat often last year, but he did allow 12.2 yards per reception. That’s about an average total, but a shutdown corner would ideally like to push that number down a bit. Byrd can help him do that, and he can also help Lewis increase his passes defended and interception totals. Shutdown corners generally don’t get many chances to make plays on the ball, but Lewis flashed terrific ball skills in his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers with 23 PDs and, again, still managed to pick off four passes last year. Sherman is a feared, shutdown corner, but he still manages to rack up PDs and INTs. Why? Because of Thomas.

Having Byrd will allow Ryan to get even more creative with his blitzes, and I’d imagine that we’re going to see some interesting three safety looks at times. The Saints are incredibly deep at the safety position, because beyond their about-to-be-elite tandem of Byrd and second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints also have Rafael Bush and intriguing rookies Vinnie Sunseri and Pierre Warren. Sunseri and Warren might end up becoming no-names in a few years and probably won’t make any noise as rookies, but it’s not exactly bad to have them as your fourth and fifth safeties, right? As for Bush, he was very solid in coverage last year, missed just one tackle, and was easily good enough to start for the Atlanta Falcons. So yeah, they have a starter as their third safety.

Vaccaro is already one of the most well-rounded safeties in the league, and this is a guy whom I would want to put in the best position to make plays. I want this guy flying all over the field Eric Weddle style, and Byrd’s play in coverage can allow Vac to be used in blitzes more often. He can cheat near the line of scrimmage, spend more time tussling it up with tight ends, and he can continue to show his versatility in coverage, run D, and as a pass rusher. Remember, this guy was the Saints best run defender last season, which also tells you a bit about where the Saints need to improve.

Not only is their secondary very impressive, but the Saints pass rush gives this defense the firepower to become a unit almost (not at the level of…but almost) as feared as their juggernaut offense. Cameron Jordan was the big breakout star last year, and he’s pretty much shed the need for superlatives. It’s the age of the elite 3-4 DE, and Jordan penetrates offensive lines as effectively as anybody. He also has a partner in crime who looks poised to break out on a national scale after breaking out on a smaller scale last year, and Akiem Hicks is more of the “dirty work” guy on the line. He gets sacks, pressure, and pushes the pocket with amazing strength, but his run defense keeps things ticking. Next season, though, Hicks should explode as a pass rusher.

And then there are the edge rushers. Junior Galette knows how to bring down quarterbacks, and he’s a terror off of the edge behind that DE duo. Last season, Galette recorded 12 sacks after flashing with five takedowns in 2012, and he’ll only become more consistent next year. The play of the secondary will lead to more blitzes, which will in turn lead to Galette facing less blockers when he hunts for sacks.

Like everyone else around him, he’ll also gain more experience in Ryan’s scheme and is still very young at the age of 26. He’ll also have a better outside linebacker on the other side, and the likes of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have taught us that two is most definitely better than one when it comes to edge rushers. Victor Butler didn’t play last year due to an injury, but he has plenty of upside under Ryan, who helped coach Butler during their days together on the Dallas Cowboys. While Butler didn’t have many sacks in Big D, he flashed mouth-watering potential.

The Saints secondary didn’t just improve at safety, though, as they also made some big improvements at the cornerback position. Champ Bailey was hobbled last year and didn’t play well, but I still firmly believe he has something left in the tank. He’s not going to be great or anything, but he should be a good mentor for rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste and still has good instincts and ball skills. A move to safety? I got a good laugh from that one. I think Bailey is ticketed for another solid season, but it will be interesting to see where they start him and SJB.

Jean-Baptiste might be the most interesting name in the Saints secondary, because he’s been tabbed with Richard Sherman upside. I really don’t see Sherman in his game, and I think it’s a bloated comparison that mainly has to do with his size, perceived upside, physicality, and the fact that we all love lofty comparisons. But SJB has plenty of upside, and he could become a great press corner a la Lewis. I’m not sure how good he’ll be as a rookie, because the Nebraska product seems raw around the edges and got burned too often in college. But he and Lewis could form a great tandem of physical corners, giving the Saints a Seahawks lite secondary when you factor in Byrd at free safety.

I could continue to praise the Saints pass defense and its potential next season, but I think you get the point. The scariest part is that even though the Saints will be getting several upgrades in the form of improving players (Hicks, Vac, and Galette), returns from injury (Butler), draft picks (SJB), and free agent signings (Byrd and Bailey), they were already a solid unit last season. That was mostly due to an elite pass rush, but now the Saints have the talent in the secondary to match their dangerous pass rush, which will only get better next year. They also have the depth to withstand key injuries, as well as big bodies at nose tackle to help hunker down the fort against the run.

I’m still not sold on their ability to stop the run, and we’ll have to see how the likes of Lofton, Hawthorne, and even Kevin Reddick fare out before making a call on that. But with added help from the players around the ILBs, I’m sure the Saints run defense will also make significant strides in 2014.

The San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, and New England Patriots (in no particular order) are mentioned as the four elite teams in the NFL, but I wonder if the Saints could be ticketed to making this list of elite teams a quintet, as opposed to a quartet. We know they have the offense, but now the Saints have prime talent on defense. To me, the biggest indicator of this shift is the fact that the Saints had one of the most frustrating safety duos just two years ago in Jenkins and Harper, but they now have one of the league’s elite safety duos in Byrd and Vaccaro after a first-round pick and a big free agent splash in back-to-back offseasons. Now that’s what I call an upgrade. And heck, you can call it an elite safety trio, because the play of Rafael Bush should not go unnoticed either. In a way, Byrd will be the Saints Thomas, Vaccaro their Kam Chancellor, and Lewis their Sherman. It’s only “in a way”, but it’s still pretty dangerous.

Tags: Akiem Hicks Cameron Jordan Champ Bailey Jairus Byrd Junior Galette Keenan Lewis Kenny Vaccaro New Orleans Saints Notes And Analysis Rafael Bush Rob Ryan Stanley Jean-Baptiste Victor Butler

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