Thoughts on the Saints’ defensive performance
By Ty Anania
The Saints put up huge numbers against one of the top-ranked defenses in the NFL last night. Unfortunately, they also gave up big numbers to a Cardinals offense that has struggled this season.
It’s not that the Cardinals have a horrible offense. They’re actually ranked sixth in yards per game, though that ranking drops to twelfth in points per game. But the Saints defense is supposed to be improving.
The Cardinals a far cry from last season’s offense when Carson Palmer was an MVP candidate. But they still have a capable coach and offensive weapons. And they still have David Johnson.
But still, this was a disappointing performance for a defense that’s been trending up these last few weeks.
I’ll start with the positives, get that out of the way.
Obviously, there aren’t going to be a lot of good things on tape when you give up 41 points.
The Saints did an excellent job of containing David Johnson. He broke +100 yards from scrimmage, but he’s done that in every game this year. On the ground, the Saints held him to 53 yards. He had to fight hard for every yard, breaking tackles and often carrying Saints defenders a few yards before going down. He’s a great back, and the Saints did well to keep him in check.
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They didn’t do such a good job on Palmer. But, to his credit, I haven’t seen Palmer play so well all year. If you’ve watched the 2016 Cardinals at all, you’ll no doubt have noticed the strange dropoff in Palmer’s performance level. An MVP candidate in 2015, Palmer has consistently missed throws and made poor decisions throughout 2016.
He didn’t do that this Sunday. His throws were, for the most part, sharp and accurate. And he read the field well. He never forcing the issue and took what the Saints defense gave him. But at the end of the day, you have to ask: why did he have that success against us?
The negatives. And there were plenty.
Ultimately, this game showed one thing: while almost every player on this unit has a strength—something you could not say about last year’s defense—there are, across the board, too many weaknesses.
B.W. Webb comes up big at times. But he’s a limited athlete who too often gives up huge plays.
Vonn Bell can make plays too. Most fans are rightly excited about his future in New Orleans. But he’s still got a ways to go. It’s tough for a rookie safety. The spotlight is always on you, and if you make a mistake it likely means a touchdown. But he makes plenty of mistakes, which has meant plenty of touchdowns. If the Saints want to be a competitive defense, he’ll need to improve in coverage in his sophomore year.
Roman Harper, I think, is playing his last season of football. He’s still a very cerebral player and no doubt a calming presence, even if he’s picking up unnecessary roughness penalties. I’d love for him to stick around and coach here in New Orleans. But he’s really hit a wall athletically.
The biggest disappointment, to me, was the defensive line. If the Cardinals are guilty of one thing this year, it’s atrocious offensive line play. And with an up and coming d-line, I expected to see plenty of pressure on Carson Palmer. Didn’t happen. The Saints managed one sack in the first half, and I’m not sure they had even a single pressure in the second. This was their chance to have a coming out party.
If there’s a silver lining there, it’s that Nick Fairley’s stats weren’t padded. Really, the worse he does in these last two games, the better for the Saints front office.
Craig Robertson, I expect, would not have suited up had Stephone Anthony not injured his knee. He wore a shoulder brace, and if you watch him you can clearly see he was favoring that shoulder all game long. A shoulder injury is pretty tough for a LB to play through. To his credit, he did an admirable job. But ultimately he gave up his share of big plays that, had the offense not exploded for 48 points, could have cost the Saints the game.
And Harper would not have seen so much of the field had the Vacarro not been suspended for four games. That’s life, and the Saints should make sure to have some improved talent at the back end of that secondary in 2017. But it’s worth noting.
I was tempted to say that, for all the talk about added depth on this defense, the unit is still putting out less-than-adequate players too often. But that really doesn’t paint the full picture.
Vacarro’s suspension is tough to gauge in this regard, but don’t forget that Erik Harris tore his knee early in the year. He would be playing over Roman Harper.
And between Craig Robertson, James Laurinaitis, Michael Mauti, and Stephone Anthony, the Saints don’t have many options left at MLB. But you can’t say they didn’t enter the season with adequate depth.
And then at CB. Again, no one can say the Saints didn’t do the necessary work in the offseason to sure up that unit. Yet injuries forced them to pick up Webb and Sterling Moore during the season. They’re now, beside an UDFA rookie, the Saints’ starting CBs. Both are solid pickups, Moore especially. But Webb’s deficiencies really hurt this team.
Hopefully the Saints can avoid the injury bug next season. But chances are slim. Injuries happen to every team. What matters is that the players that play can step up and really play. We’ve seen glimpses of it this year. But we need to see it more consistently.
I’m always cautious about criticizing coordinators. They know much more about the sport and the gameplan than I do. And usually I’ve been very impressed by Dennis Allen’s gameplans and execution. But I couldn’t help but feel Allen should have taken a slightly different approach to this contest.
2016 Palmer has really struggled to make accurate throws. That’s led to a high number of interceptions, and a generally low completion percentage.
The Cardinals main offensive weapon is David Johnson. And Allen and the Saints defense, as I said, did a great job on containing DJ. But in doing so, they gave up far too much along the sidelines to the Cardinals WRs.
I’d have liked to see Allen challenge Palmer to throw it deep more often. With Michael Floyd off the team, John Brown is the Cardinals only real deep threat. Yet the Saints consistently played well off the line of scrimmage. Palmer was content to take what he could underneath, and move the chains.
Against a struggling QB, I’d prefer to force him to beat you with his arm. Throw it deep. Throw it between defenders. Through tight windows. Make him read the field after the snap. Too often Palmer could make his decision before he’d hiked the ball.
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The Saints defense allowed him to find a rhythm. That’s what led to 41 points.