It was the best of defenses, it was the worst of defenses. I can only assume that’s how Charles Dickens would describe the New Orleans Saints defense this year. But Charles Dickens doesn’t write about football, luckily.
In looking at the Saints defense, there’s a lot to like. Much like the Cowboys, New Orleans has a lot of playmakers at each level. Their defensive line is most impressive, where Cameron Jordan has quietly been wrecking opposing offenses for years and 2018 is no exception; he leads the team in sacks with eight and has 13 tackles for loss and 13 hits on the quarterback. Third-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has really come into his own, notching seven sacks and ten tackles for loss, as well as 12 QB hits. Rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport has four sacks and a forced fumble, while Alex Okafor has contributed three sacks of his own.
They are not household names or game-breakers, but linebackers Demario Davis and A.J. Klein have been solid. Davis leads the team in tackles and Klein is third on the team, and both contribute in rushing the passer in their own way. In New Orleans’ defensive scheme, though, the linebackers are primarily used as run stoppers who swallow up anything that gets past the defensive line, and these two do the job well.
The secondary boasts a big talent in corner Marshon Lattimore, and some solid contributors like PJ Williams, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Kurt Coleman, and Marcus Williams. Lattimore, of course, won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season and has been incredible in his young career thus far. And many Cowboys fans are familiar with Apple for getting burned by various Cowboys receivers, but he’s seen a significant uptick in production since joining the Saints, recording an interception and recovering a fumble.
One would think this talent in the defensive backfield would make it nearly impossible for opposing offenses to throw against them, but it’s actually been quite the opposite. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 69% of their passes against the Saints, and the defense has allowed 3,143 passing yards (285.7 per game) on the year so far. The only defenses who have given up more through the air are the Cincinnati Bengals, who fired their defensive coordinator two weeks ago, and the Kansas City Chiefs. Perhaps most troubling for the Saints is that opposing quarterbacks are averaging 8.4 yards per attempt against them, so it’s not as if these numbers are due to dink and dunk offenses. Only three teams allow a higher yards per attempt so far.
This could be a point of emphasis for the Cowboys, especially considering that Dallas will likely need all the points it can get going up against Drew Brees and that high flying offense. Dak Prescott is on a hot streak right now; over the last five games, he’s completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 256.6 yards per game with six touchdowns and just one interception. He’s also scored four touchdowns with his legs in that span. Against this terrible passing defense, Prescott should be able to continue that hot streak and further show off his deadly connection with Amari Cooper.
And the pressure might be heavily resting on Prescott’s shoulders, too, because New Orleans has the best run defense in the NFL. To date, only two defenses have surrendered under 1,000 rushing yards: the Saints and the Bears. Chicago’s stout defense has actually given up 84 more rushing yards than New Orleans. The Saints are only giving up an average of 73.2 rushing yards per game.
Now, it’s admittedly a bit hard to fully understand the value of these volume statistics. For most of their games this season, the Saints have built a big lead early on in the game. Typically when this happens, the other team abandons the run and starts throwing in an attempt to narrow the score. It’s entirely possible that both the great numbers against the run and terrible numbers against the pass have everything to do with the volume of rushing attempts vs passing attempts and the fact the Saints are playing a soft defense with the lead. Still, though, the Saints have a -1.5% DVOA ranking for their defense, which puts them at 14th in the league for defensive efficiency. Their passing defense is a +11% DVOA, which is the 21st most efficient passing defense - so, better than what the raw numbers say, but still not great. Similarly, their run defense efficiency drops a bit to third in the league with a -23.6% DVOA.
In short, the run defense is legit, but not as great as the Thursday Night Football broadcast team will undoubtedly make it seem, and the pass defense is bad but not otherworldly levels of terrible like, say, Kansas City. Nevertheless, the Cowboys will face a tough challenge in doing what they do best, which is feeding Zeke. Elliott, like his quarterback, has been on a hot streak lately that Dallas wants to ride towards the postseason.
The biggest factor in the New Orleans run defense has been their defensive line as they routinely control the line of scrimmage. They’ll likely be going against three backup linemen for Dallas on Thursday consisting of Joe Looney, Xavier Sua-Filo, and most likely Cameron Fleming. Additionally, La’el Collins will be dealing with the aforementioned Jordan all game long, so running lanes will probably be at a premium. Perhaps offensive line coach Marc Colombo can come up with some tricks to catch the defensive line off balance, but more than likely this will be the game that derails Elliott’s run.
Despite their struggles against the pass, this defense has thrived on one thing: the “bend but don’t break” principle. For all the yards they allow through the air, New Orleans only gives up 23.3 points per game. For comparison, the Chiefs surrender 26.7 per game. Factor in that Brees usually puts up 100 or so points every game, and that’s a recipe for success. One reason they can give up all those yards and still succeed is turnovers. The Saints have a +8 turnover margin, good for fifth in the league. Dallas’ offense will need to take advantage of this secondary and put up points of their own if they want to win this game. The Dallas defense is really good, but counting on anyone to shut down Brees is not a good idea. Instead, they’ll need another great performance out of Prescott, because relying solely on Elliott will likely not be an option this time.