What the New Orleans Saints Must Improve Most Coming out of Week 6 Bye
The Saints (2-3) were picked to contend for a Super Bowl championship by several prognosticators heading into the season, but things haven’t gone nearly as smoothly as expected through the first five games.
In three road games, New Orleans has dropped two close contests and been blown out once. At home, the Saints enjoyed a double-digit win, but they had to dig deep to squeak out a Week 5 win against the Bucs.
If there’s a silver lining to New Orleans’ slow start, it’s that the Saints are only one game behind the 3-2 Carolina Panthers for the lead in the NFC South.
The Saints must make significant improvements in order to have a realistic shot at a divisional crown, however, and there’s typically no better time to regroup than during a bye week.
Following, in descending order, are four areas in which the Saints must improve on during their bye week, with the most important area coming on the last slide.
4. Pass Rush
Heading into the season, the pass rush was expected to be a huge strength for the Saints, but that simply hasn’t been the case through the first five games.
Defensive end Cam Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette combined to ring up 24.5 sacks last season, and the duo was primed for an even bigger year in coordinator Rob Ryan’s second season in New Orleans.
Thus far, Jordan has a grand total of one sack, and he’s hardly resembled the player who enjoyed a breakout year and went to the Pro Bowl last season.
Galette has fared a little better with three sacks, one of which was a key tackle of Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon for a safety in Sunday’s win. The fifth-year man out of Stillman has disappeared for large portions of games, however, and the Saints will need more out of him if they’re to turn things around in the coming weeks.
New Orleans was also expecting big things from defensive end Akiem Hicks this season. At 6’5” and 325 pounds, the third-year player has the size, strength and athleticism to be extremely disruptive as a pass-rusher, but he’s yet to record a sack in 2014.
With the Saints starting front seven recording just four sacks in five games, Ryan would ideally like to compensate by dialing up blitzes to generate pressure. Poor coverage this season from the New Orleans secondary, however, has forced him to be a bit more conservative, and the Saints haven’t blitzed nearly as much as they did in 2013.
Granted, sacks aren’t the sole means of measuring an effective pass rush, but the New Orleans defensive front hasn’t hurried opposing quarterbacks into quick throws nearly as often as it should have, and that must change starting in Week 6.
3. Quarterback Play
Of all the areas in which the Saints have struggled this season, this one is by far the most surprising.
Drew Brees, yes, the same Drew Brees destined for a spot in the Hall of Fame, has not looked himself through the first five games, and his play has been, at times, a liability.
A quick glance at his numbers doesn’t reveal any cause for concern. He’s averaging over 300 yards per contest and has tossed nine touchdowns, but he simply hasn’t passed the eyeball test.
He threw three interceptions in Sunday’s game, one of which was an ugly floater that was returned for a score, and he was nearly picked off three other times in the contest. Tampa Bay linebacker Danny Lansanah’s third quarter interception returned for a touchdown marked Brees’ second pick-six of the season, and it put the Saints in a 24-13 hole that took a complete team effort to overcome.
It isn’t often that Payton has had to turn to the running game in order to protect his quarterback from further disaster, but that was the case in the minutes after Sunday’s pick-six.
To his credit, Brees gathered himself and slowly gained back his confidence, but his performance in Sunday’s game, as well as in the games against the Cleveland Browns and the Dallas Cowboys, was quite alarming. In fact, he’s thrown an interception in every contest this season but one and has a total of six.
His inaccuracy, on the deep ball in particular, has been especially puzzling. He’s never possessed an overly strong arm, but he’s usually been on point with his deep throws. Brees’ success with the long ball has helped make the Saints one of the NFL’s most feared offenses throughout the Payton era, but that aspect of his game has been sorely lacking this season, as he’s consistently underthrown receivers.
If this criticism seems a bit on the harsh side, it’s because Brees is one of the all-time greats, and he’s held to a higher standard than most. For the Saints to have a successful season, they’ll need better play from their leader starting in Week 6 against the Detroit Lions.
2. Pass Coverage
New Orleans ranks No. 26 in the league in pass defense thus far this season, as the Saints are yielding an average of 267.6 yards per game through the air.
This telling statistic is a complete reversal from last season, when the Saints finished ranked second to the Seattle Seahawks in this same category. While a better pass rush up front certainly would've helped, the Saints' defensive backfield has vastly underperformed through the first five games.
During the offseason, New Orleans replaced the inconsistent Malcolm Jenkins with three-time Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd at free safety. The Saints also signed cornerback Champ Bailey and selected 6’3” corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round of the draft.
After beefing up an already solid secondary, it appeared that the gap between New Orleans' defense and that of the Seahawks may have closed and that the Saints would be able to challenge the defending champs for supremacy among NFL defensive backfields.
Simply put, things haven’t worked out.
Bailey was cut before the season started, while Jean-Baptiste was largely unimpressive in preseason action and has yet to receive significant playing time.
New Orleans’ pass defense got off to as bad a start as possible in Week 1 of the regular season, when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tossed for 448 yards. The Saints secondary followed that up with an abysmal performance at Cleveland, which led to the benching of starting corner Patrick Robinson.
Just after things began to look up in a Week 3 win over the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans was picked apart by Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football.
To make matters worse, the Saints lost Byrd for the season with a knee injury suffered in practice last week.
The defensive backfield endured another shaky outing against Bucs signal-caller Mike Glennon this past Sunday, as Tampa Bay wideout Vincent Jackson had his way with Saints No. 1 cover man Keenan Lewis.
Second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro has also been a disappointment thus far, as he hasn’t lived up to expectations after setting a high bar as a playmaker in his rookie season.
To be fair to the secondary, the New Orleans linebackers haven’t fared well in coverage, either, as Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are too often seen chasing after opposing running backs following short pass completions.
Cornerback is still the biggest area of concern, however, and Robinson, Corey White and rookie Brian Dixon must improve their play quickly if the Saints are to have a shot at the playoffs.
1. Turnover Margin
The Saints have nine turnovers (six interceptions and three fumbles) through the first five games of the season, while they have just two takeaways to their credit. With a turnover differential of minus-7, New Orleans ranks dead last in the league.
This is not a recipe for winning football.
In the NFL, coming out on top in the turnover battle factors heavily into a team's success, and right now, the Saints are losing this fight in a big way.
Fortunately for New Orleans, this issue is somewhat correctable. Creating turnovers can be contagious for a defense, and if Ryan's unit improves its pass rush, that, in turn, will help out the secondary. Interceptions and fumbles could then begin to mount, especially if free safety Kenny Vaccaro returns the form he exhibited in 2013, when he wreaked havoc all over the field.
On offense, Brees must obviously protect the football better, and the Saints backs and receivers can’t afford to put the ball on the ground.
The 2014 season hasn’t played out according to plan for the New Orleans Saints, but they’re still very much in the hunt for the NFC South title, and with it, a playoff spot.
The season is long, and there’s lots of football left to be played. If Payton’s squad can correct some of the aforementioned issues, things could quickly turn around. Then, these Saints could finally start to achieve their full potential.