After making enormous strides in 2017, the Saints have one glaring hole on their roster through three weeks. If they can fill it, good things are on the horizon.
Despite the devastating finish, the New Orleans Saints seemed to have it all figured out in 2017. This year rolled around, and the blueprint for success was right in front of them. Then the defense stepped on the field.
And things went south.
Sean Payton’s 2018 squad is disturbingly reminiscent of all of the 7-9 Saints teams of the middle part of this decade. The teams that just couldn’t get off the field on defense, watching quarterback Drew Brees carve up defenses for 30 points a game and still lose. The teams that rewrote the NFL’s defensive record books — in a bad way. The teams that many said Brees needed to leave because he deserves better.
This year, Brees has the offense humming as usual, as New Orleans ranks fourth in yards per game and second in points per game. The unit is a well-oiled machine, with Brees, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas shattering records on a weekly basis.
But, that’s about where the good news ends. Dennis Allen’s defense ranks 30th in the league in yards allowed per game and dead last in points allowed per game. Yikes. The team returned essentially all of the same vital personnel that contributed to an above-average defense last season. They even went out and signed a few veteran free agents on that side of the ball to shore things up.
So what’s gone wrong? The secondary. And in particular, one position in the secondary: the cornerback opposite Marshon Lattimore.
Ken Crawley opened the season as the starter in that spot after a resurgent 2017 season. But after struggling mightily in the first two games, he was benched in favor of 2015 third-rounder P.J. Williams. Crawley’s benching was short-lived, however, as Williams was immediately torched by Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley in Week 3. Crawley was re-inserted into the lineup, promptly struggling in the form of deep completions surrendered and pass interference penalties.
To make matters worse, the Saints placed slot corner Patrick Robinson on injured reserve today with a broken ankle.
The one consistent piece in the secondary has been last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. After hitting his own rock bottom in Week 1, he’s rebounded well and blanketed his assignments ever since. Against the Falcons in Week 3, he shut down superstar Julio Jones while Williams struggled against Ridley. To stop the bleeding, Lattimore switched from Julio onto Ridley in the second half. You’d never guess what happened next; Ridley went quiet and Julio went bonkers.
Despite the cornerback carousel, the Saints sit at 2-1, tied for the NFC South division lead. They made up for a bad loss to the Buccaneers by stealing a game from the Falcons that not many thought they could win. Things could be worse.
Their next step is to dive into the free-agent cornerback market. Green Bay gobbled up the top guy on the market, Bashaud Breeland, on Tuesday. New Orleans subsequently worked out 26-year-old David Amerson.
We all know what the offense can do. The defense has most of the pieces. Lattimore is a blue-chip talent and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Defensive end Cameron Jordan was an All-Pro last year. The team has last year’s playoff experience — and heartbreak — to use as motivation.
If they can plug the hole at the second cornerback position, Brees could be hoisting his second Lombardi Trophy in February. But, if they continue to roll out the personnel that they have been, they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.