New Orleans Saints season recap part 3: Defensive grades

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Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (right) celebrates with his team following a defensive stop against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen (right) celebrates with his team following a defensive stop against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports /
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A note: this “Part 3” recap is a continuation of a series from the Big Easy Believer.

The New Orleans Saints defense has been much maligned in recent years, and deservedly so.

For the fourth time in the last five seasons, the New Orleans Saints finished near the bottom of the league in most defensive rankings. Not coincidently, the team finished with a losing record in each of those seasons, despite having an offense that was among the NFL’s best.

The Saints defense did show noticeable improvement this year, however, particularly over the last half of the 2016 season. In the 3rd part of our Saints season recap, we will grade the New Orleans positional groups on defense, starting with an area that looks as if it may even develop into a team strength…

DEFENSIVE LINE—grade C

Defensive end Cam Jordan remains a team leader, and perhaps the most underrated defensive end in pro football. Jordan’s 2016 statistics may not have reflected such, but many believed that the 27yr old sixth-year pro had his best season. Jordan’s 7.5 sacks led the team, and his run stopping ability is among the league’s top echelon.

Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Saints defeated the Cardinals 48-41. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The end spot opposite Jordan remains as one of the Saints biggest weaknesses. New Orleans had hoped that last year’s second round pick Hau’oli Kikaha would assume this spot, but Kikaha suffered his 3rd major knee injury in mini-camp and never played a down. The Saints were excited about the signing of former sack specialist Paul Kruger, but the 30yr old Kruger was a colossal disappointment, contributing only 1.5 sacks and often doing a great impression of the “invisible man” on the defensive side. It would be a surprise if the Saints retained Kruger for 2017.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley was signed to a 1yr contract this past offseason, and at times big Nick was the team’s best defensive player. He finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks, and along with rookie Sheldon Rankins provided a push in the middle of the defensive line that the Saints had not had in years. Fairley will hopefully be a top priority to retain for the Saints this offseason. Rankins, the 12th overall selection, showed exactly why New Orleans drafted him so high after missing the first handful of games due to a broken leg suffered in the preseason. Rankins’ future seems bright, showing athletic pass rush ability combined with brutal strength from his defensive tackle position. Tyeler Davison provides a good

Rankins, the 12th overall selection, showed exactly why New Orleans drafted him so high after missing the first handful of games due to a broken leg suffered in the preseason. Rankins’ future seems bright, showing athletic pass rush ability combined with brutal strength from his defensive tackle position. Tyeler Davison provides a good

Tyeler Davison provides a good run-stopping presence at defensive tackle, giving the Saints a solid inside rotation for a team that only gave up a little over 100yds rushing per game (101.6). Veteran Darryl Tapp did a solid job as a role player, both inside and outside. The end spot opposite Jordan will be perhaps the highest off season priority for the Saints, most likely addressed in a deep draft for pass rushers.

LINEBACKER–grade D

Linebacker Craig Robertson was probably the team’s best free agent acquisition in 2016. The 28yr old Robertson was signed away from Cleveland, and led the Saints with 115 tackles from both an outside spot, then from middle linebacker after free agent James Laurinaitis proved to be a flop.

Outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was perhaps the team’s defensive MVP, for the 7 games that he was on the field. New Orleans allowed an average of 10points less per game when Ellerbe’s number 59 was present in the lineup. But his reliability to be on the field continues to handcuff this New Orleans defense.

Last year’s 31st overall selection Stephone Anthony regressed badly from a productive rookie season, often being replaced in the lineup by free agent Nate Stupar. Stupar is a good role player in this defense, but should be considered no more than a “stop gap” solution.

Even as well as Robertson and Ellerbe played; the Saints defense has an alarming lack of playmakers at this level. This was illustrated in the Saints two losses to the hated Atlanta Falcons, when Atlanta backs Devontae Freeman and Tevin Coleman dominated New Orleans defenders; literally having their way in both the running game and through the air. Upgrades in this linebacking corps are absolutely vital, and will likely be addressed in both free agency and very high in this springs college draft.

SECONDARY–grade F

The Saints were 32nd in pass defense, allowing 274yds per game, and only intercepted 9 passes. New Orleans was decimated by injuries in the secondary, particularly at the cornerback position. Star shutdown corner Delvin Breaux missed a large portion of the year with a broken

Star shutdown corner Delvin Breaux missed a large portion of the year with a broken leg, and was

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simply not the same player when he was in the lineup. PJ Williams, Damian Swann and Kyle Wilson also missed the 2016 season, forcing the team to sign players off the street to fill a key coverage position. One of these signings, Sterling Moore, had a solid year while BW Webb also had some solid contributions. The Saints gave up an astounding average of almost 44% of opponents third down conversions; this defense simply could not get off the field in key moments. Free safety Vonn Bell was drafted in the second round to strengthen the Saints last line of defense. Bell had some uneven

PJ Williams, Damian Swann and Kyle Wilson also missed the 2016 season, forcing the team to sign players off the street to fill a key coverage position.

One of these signings, Sterling Moore, had a solid year while BW Webb also had some solid contributions. The Saints gave up an astounding average of almost 44% of opponents third down conversions; this defense simply could not get off the field in key moments. Free safety Vonn Bell was drafted in the second round to strengthen the Saints last line of defense. Bell had some uneven

Free safety Vonn Bell was drafted in the second round to strengthen the Saints last line of defense. Bell had some uneven moments, but often did show that he will likely be a good player in this league.

Kenny Vaccaro could have been headed toward his first pro bowl berth, if not for a late season suspension. Vaccaro is one of the finer “in the box” safeties in the NFL, and has even shown improvement in his coverage abilities; often taking on the opponent’s slot receiver.

Free safety Jairus Byrd actually showed improvement over the second half of this season, having an outstanding game against Tampa Bay during a late season contest. Byrd’s career as a Saint has been ABYSMAL, but unfortunately at the moment this team simply does not have any other options beyond him.

We should expect to see the Saints bring in a few new defensive backs before the beginning of 2017, and given the returning talent at cornerback they may decide to concentrate more on the safeties that might be available.

COACHING–grade C

The big news here in the last week were the firings of longtime defensive assistants Joe Vitt (linebacker coach) and Bill Johnson (d-line coach). It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will want to round out his staff. Allen’s first full year as defensive coordinator began with preseason excitement, but presented the young coach with huge challenges because of the injury woes.

Next: One on One with safety Vonn Bell

Allen seems to prefer an aggressive game plan, calling for a high number of blitzes, which does tend to expose defensive backs in more one on one situations. The defense played extremely well in late season games against Carolina, Denver, Detroit and Tampa; showing that this may be a unit on the rise, with just a few additions along each level of an improving defense.

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