Digesting the Saints defense

Happy Thursday, friends.  I have a few minutes to cook up a bite-size nugget, so open up.  I had occasion to watch the Saints-Bucs game on Wednesday night, and the most noticeable thing is that the Saints defense is atrocious.

To that end, they’re 32nd in total defense, 30th against the pass, 31st against the run, and 29th in scoring defense.  It’s a complete horror show.

I don’t think too highly of Steve Spagnuolo as a coach, because I think his defenses have tended to be very good when his talent is great.  It’s easy to have a team with a great pass rush when you have Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Justin Tuck.  I don’t think he’s ever elevated marginal talent through excellent scheming, like, say, Mike Nolan or Rex Ryan.

When Spagnuolo’s defenses have been good, it’s been because his pass rushers can whip your offensive line, and because his corners and safeties can hold up well enough on the back end, mostly thanks to that pass rush. 

Spags has always favored a lot of blitzing, even when his D-line is very good, but this Saints team is doing so less than his past teams have.  They’re only bringing an average of 4.32 rushers per pass play, and the only nominal back-seven player who is rushing a lot is LB Martez Wilson, who has emerged as a pretty nice pass rush specialist.

There’s practically no zone-blitzing, with a group of players that did a lot of that under Gregg Williams, and really, there’s not much zone coverage going on at all.  Against Tampa Bay, I saw a ton of Cover 1 with press man coverage outside.  I just think this guy is a huge dropoff from Williams, as a coordinator, vilification efforts by the NFL notwithstanding.

The decrease in blitzing from the Spags baseline seems to be in response to the fact that his back-seven guys aren’t good in coverage.  The high-priced MLB Curtis Lofton has been particularly vulnerable in coverage, and if I were making the call, I’d be using Jonathan Vilma at that position (at least until the Ginger Hammer succeeds in suspending him), thus bumping Lofton to Sam, and to the bench on sub-package downs.

Lofton, however, has played 454 of the Saints’ 473 snaps this season, tying safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper for the team lead.  If you want to know why the Saints’ pass defense is bad, look no further than those three inside players.  Pro Football Focus has Lofton as the 41st-best ILB (out of 47 rated), and Harper at 71st and Jenkins at 75th out of 76 who were graded.

To give you a point of comparison, Joe Mays is 27th among ILBs (with a small negative rating), and Rahim Moore is 17th, and Mike Adams is 38th among safeties, both with positive ratings.

Outside, the Saints have the perennially underrated and effective Jabari Greer, and nothing else.  Patrick Robinson is awful, and it goes downhill from there, with Corey White and Johnny Patrick as the primary reinforcements.

Getting back to the question of pass rush, the Saints are really weak in that area, with only Wilson representing much of a threat at all from the outside.  DEs Cameron Jordan and Will Smith get blocked consistently, and they play a ton of snaps, because there isn’t much behind them.

At DT, Sedrick Ellis is thoroughly average against both run and pass, and as we all know quite well, old friend Brodrick Bunkley is good against the run, and mostly ineffective as a rusher.  Junior Galette is a solid interior pass rush specialist, and he has four of the team’s 13 sacks.

I believe that the Broncos will be able to have their way against this defense, much like they did against the Raiders.  If they avoid turnovers, I can easily see the Broncos putting up 40-50 points against New Orleans.  I don’t think the Saints can stop anything that the Broncos want to do, and I think their players mostly play like they know they’re on a terrible defense.  It’s not quite 2008 Broncos bad, but it’s approaching that level.

Of course, the Saints can score pretty well themselves, no matter who they play against, and I’m going to look at some defensive ideas for the Broncos tomorrow.  Be there or be square, and have a nice rest of your Thursday.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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