The New Orleans Saints are not the power they once were. Their Super Bowl triumph was now seven years and a half years ago, and they haven’t really threatened to get back to the big game all that often.
While the offense is still there, the defense has been a big problem for the Saints in recent years. Have they managed to fix the problems of previous years?
Drew Brees was once again deadly, putting up his fifth 5,000+ yard season as he led the NFL with 5,208 yards. However, while he was slinging bombs to Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, and Willie Snead, nothing else was really going right for the Saints.
The defense ranked 31st in overall DVOA, after being 32nd in 2015. They particularly struggled against the pass, allowing an NFL-high 4,380 yards against and giving up a QB rating against of 98.1. It was that poor defense that kept Brees throwing all day, as the Saints put up 30+ points nine times but won only six of those games.
There was some misfortune built into the Saints 7-9 record. They lost a Week 1 game against Oakland on a last second two-point conversion and lost in Week 10 to Denver on a blocked extra point that got returned for the winning two-point margin. The Saints were 5-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less, with the defense at fault in almost all of them.conversion, and lost in Week 10 to Denver on a blocked extra point that got returned for the winning two-point margin. The Saints were 5-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less, with the defense at fault in almost all of them.
|Larry Warford, G||Brandin Cooks, WR|
|AJ Klein, ILB||Jahri Evans, G|
|Ted Ginn Jr, WR||BW Webb, CB|
|Adrian Peterson, RB||Tim Hightower, RB|
|Manti Te’o, ILB||Tim Lelito, G|
|Alex Okafor, OLB/DE|
|Rafael Bush, S|
|Clay Harbor, TE|
|Marshon Lattimore, CB (Draft)|
|Ryan Ramczyk, OT (Draft)|
The trade of Brandin Cooks to New England gave the Saints the 32nd pick in the Draft, which they turned into offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. They used their own first rounder on Marshon Lattimore to help bring some talent into their secondary.
Outside of the draft though, the additions were slim due to a poor cap situation. They got a good replacement for Jahri Evans in Larry Warford, but otherwise they were shopping at the bottom of the market with the likes of AJ Klein and Manti Te’o coming in to provide depth rather than impact.Te’o coming in to provide depth rather than impact.otherwise they were shopping at the bottom of the market with the likes of AJ Klein and Manti Te’o coming in to provide depth rather than impact.
Taking a gamble on Adrian Peterson could pay off big if he provides a more serious ground attack to take advantage of defenses playing a lot of nickel against Brees.
|1||@ Minnesota Vikings|
|2||Vs New England Patriots|
|3||@ Carolina Panthers|
|4||@ Miami Dolphins|
|6||Vs Detroit Lions|
|7||@ Green Bay Packers|
|8||Vs Chicago Bears|
|9||Vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|10||@ Buffalo Bills|
|11||Vs Washington Redskins|
|12||@ Los Angeles Rams|
|13||Vs Carolina Panthers|
|14||@ Atlanta Falcons|
|15||Vs New York Jets|
|16||Vs Atlanta Falcons|
|17||@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
With the NFC North, AFC East, Washington, and the Rams as their out-of-division schedule, there are some very winnable games on the slate for the Saints. The Jets and Rams are going to be at the foot of the league this year, and Buffalo, Miami, and Chicago could be very beatable too. Of course, with the AFC East and NFC North come the Patriots and Packers, and those games will be very tough for the Saints and that poor defense.
Their final five games feature four divisional games, including two against the Falcons. While this will allow the Saints to be in the divisional race late into the season, playing Atlanta twice and then going into Tampa in Week 17 will be very tricky.
Three players to watch
While most eyes will be on Drew Brees’ production, there are so many other players who can contribute to the team, or at least that’s what the coaches hope…
Ryan Ramczyk, Offensive line
There are only two nailed-on starters on the Saints offensive line, with Terron Armstead at left tackle and Max Unger at center. That leaves three jobs for the likes of Zach Strief, Andrus Peat, Larry Warford, and Josh LeRibeus. While right tackle would be the natural place for Ramczyk to play, Strief is the incumbent and a veteran of 12 seasons. While limited, Strief is trusted, and beating him out will be tough. I do think he can do it though. He is a fluid player who is strong in pass protection, which is not Strief’s strong point.
Hau’oli Kikaha, Outside linebacker/edge rusher
A second round pick in 2015, Kikaha played just 58.3% of snaps in 2015 and put up four sacks, two tackles for loss, and five QB hits. He lacks ideal length, but he has terrific hand and leverage skills as well as a relentless motor. An ACL tear in a voluntary workout last June cost him the 2016 season, but now he is back and ready to fill a hole the Saints desperately need to cover. With Alex Okafor, Darryl Tapp, and Cameron Jordan as his competition for sacks, Kikaha has a good chance to be the main man when it comes to helping the secondary and killing quarterbacks.
Kenny Vaccaro, Safety
The story of Kenny Vaccaro is a curious one. He came in like a house on fire in 2013, making 77 tackles, picking up a sack and four tackles for loss, picking off one pass and batting eight more, and seemingly popping up all over the field to take away throwing lanes and lay out receivers. And ever since then he has struggled to find that kind of impactful form. The Saints signed Jairus Byrd and drafted Vonn Bell in an effort to put the pieces around Vaccaro that would see him perform so well again, but it hasn’t really happened. In the last year of his contract, Vaccaro needs to find some form, and make some impactful plays, if he wants to find well-paid work next year.
It’s not a bold statement to say that the Saints passing game will still be one of the best in the league. Even without Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, and Coby Fleener can still catch everything thrown their way by the brilliant Brees. The question marks crop up elsewhere. How will the offensive line slot together? Can AP rediscover his form? Can the defense improve?
If they can just field the 20th best defense it might be enough to get them into the playoffs. This will be Dennis Allen’s third year in charge of the D, and following a bit of investment and getting him a strong corner in Lattimore there should be improvements. Cam Jordan is a very good player, but losing Nick Fairley for the year up front is a blow. The Saints need more from linebacker Stephone Anthony as well as Vonn Bell. Delvin Breaux has proved to be a very reliable corner, but the #3 spot, effectively a starter these days, is still very much in doubt.
Atlanta will be the team to beat in the division, and the expectation is that Carolina will improve as well, while there is a lot of buzz around Tampa Bay again. There is a legitimate worry that the Saints could wind up at the foot of the NFC South, but they have such a strong passing offense that a complete train wreck of a season is avoidable as long as Drew Brees is on the field. The only problem is that this may be his final year with the team, and if he goes will Sean Payton follow?
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