For all the talk about how the Cowboys defense isn’t living up to its talent, which is a valid argument, that’s doubly true for the Saints defense. Through three games, the Saints have played the Houston Texans, Los Angeles Rams, and Seattle Seahawks. The Texans offense currently ranks 17th in total yards and 13th in points per game, while the Rams are 16th in total yards and eighth in points per game. Strangely enough, the Seahawks are the best offense the Saints have faced yet, as they rank ninth in both yards and scoring.
And despite going against three solid, but not elite (this year), offenses, the Saints defense is giving up just over 27 points a game and 436 yards per game. That ranks them 28th in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed. Surrendering nearly 302 passing yards a game, the New Orleans secondary has been routinely torched this season; not even the Dolphins are giving up that many passing yards. Their run defense is also porous, giving up over 134 rushing yards per game. That’s against a crop of running backs featuring rehabbing Todd Gurley and others. Now the unit will face a three-headed rushing attack of Ezekiel Elliott, who’s off to the best start in his career, Tony Pollard, who just had his best game yet, and Dak Prescott, an early MVP contender.
But why is this defense not performing well, or at least closer to the middle of the pack like Dallas? It’s certainly not for lack of talent. The offensive trio of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas rightfully get all the hype, but the Saints have a great defensive roster as well. Their secondary features two talented safeties in Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, while the cornerbacks feature the likes of Eli Apple, PJ Williams, and former Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore.
The defensive line also features some noisemakers, as third-year defensive end Trey Hendrickson leads the team with three sacks, and Marcus Davenport and Malcolm Brown bring additional levels of pass rush. But the big force is Cameron Jordan, one of the most underrated players in all of football. Jordan has tallied double-digit sacks in four of the last six seasons, and aside from his rookie year, has never had less than 7.5 sacks in a given year; he’s already got two sacks this season.
So what’s the problem? For starters, injuries have held the defense back a bit. The Saints’ top defensive tackle, Sheldon Rankins, has missed the first three games as he still recovers from a torn Achilles late last year. He’s getting closer to returning though, and could potentially see the field against Dallas. The linebacker corps has also lost some players, most notably Alex Anzalone. After emerging as an integral run-stopper for the defense midway through last year, Anzalone was just placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. That leaves last year’s leading tackler, Demario Davis, flanked by AJ Klein and offseason addition Kiko Alonso.
That explains most of the problems New Orleans has stopping the run, but against the pass they don’t have any excuses. The secondary is currently holding a +33.4% DVOA, which ranks 25th in the league. Lattimore himself has been underperforming, allowing a 74% completion rate thus far and leading all cornerbacks in receptions allowed, per Pro Football Focus. Williams hasn’t been much better, allowing a 66% completion rate. Apple has been the most reliable, with just a 50% rate, albeit with significantly less targets.
There’s no real explanation for why this is aside from simply saying that these cornerbacks aren’t playing well. They’re giving up too much separation, and quarterbacks are making them pay. And a defense that can’t stop the run and can’t stop giving up plays through the air is destined for bad things.
Now, facing an offense that ranks in the top five in both passing and rushing offense and is the leader in offensive DVOA by a longshot, the Saints’ backs are up against the wall. The home crowd may become an aiding factor, but this defense will need something more than just a noisy dome to help them stand up against one of the NFL’s best offenses right now.