How the Saints D Got Its Swagger Back

Think New Orleans is all Drew Brees, all the playmakers, all the offense, all the time? Think again. After years in the NFL basement in the wake of a Super Bowl win and the Bountygate scandal, here's how the Saints defense once again has opponents asking, "Who dat?"
photo of Dan PompeiDan PompeiNFL ColumnistMETAIRIE, LA.January 11, 2019

In the middle of the celebration, there's Cameron Jordan, flexing and smiling.        

To Jordan's right, one knee on the ground, Eli Apple is in the same pose, minus the smile.

Behind Apple, Vince Biegel is giving the double front biceps.

On the ground on Jordan's left, David Onyemata shows off one big left arm.

Other players get in on it, too—the scene coming together after an interception in a 48-7 win over the Eagles in mid-November. The photo of it taken by The Advocate, which would later make the rounds on social media and bulletin boards, perfectly captures what this Saints defense has become.

There's a lot of muscle on display. And a lot of joy.

While the Saints offense gets most of the bouquets, their defense has provided balance and hope this season, finishing second in the NFL with 1,283 rushing yards and 3.6 yards per carry allowed and just three sacks shy of the league lead with 49.

"When we take the field, we are going to prove we are the best on the field … and that's going against anybody," Jordan says. "All of our defensive players have the same mindset. We'll take over the run game, make a team one-dimensional, get a couple turnovers and get the ball back to Drew [Brees] and our offense and put our team in the best position to win."

And they'll do it with style, striking poses all the way.

"We always say what we need is one picture a game, when the whole defense runs out to the field after a big play, celebrating, feeding off each other," safety Vonn Bell says.

The Saints defenders now have a chance to pose for more photos at the expense of the Eagles. The teams meet again Sunday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

These celebrations, Jordan says, are "organic" and involve considerably less preparation than the plays that inspire them. "We don't have extra time to practice anything," he says. "We're focused on trying to become a better defense."

Many defenses across the league are posing for pictures these days, but the Saints say the tradition started with them. Bell says the first photo op came after a big play against the Lions in October 2017.

"The league stole our swag with that," he says. "So we've got to come up with something new for the playoffs. We have to have something new up our sleeve."

So get your camera ready.


Remember: This is the team that finished in the bottom five in the NFL in points allowed four times from 2012 to 2016.

The Saints defense became stuck in a rut as its 2009 Super Bowl players dispersed and the haze from the Bountygate scandal, which broke in 2012, complicated any rebuilding effort. They jumped from Gregg Williams to Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan before settling on Dennis Allen as their defensive coordinator in November 2015.

Before they'd promoted Allen, the team's decision-makers, coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, had already decided to recommit to the defense.

"There had been some turnover, and we didn't do as good a job with personnel during that period," Loomis says. "We needed to fill some holes, get smart on defense and give our guys on defense more bullets."

They hired Jeff Ireland to oversee personnel and used six of their nine picks on defense in the 2015 draft. Then they used seven first- to third-round picks on defensive players from 2016 to 2018, including the 12th pick in 2016 on defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and the 11th in 2017 on cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Lattimore
LattimoreMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Lattimore was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after a five-interception first season, but it took Rankins a while longer to find his groove. He didn't become a starter until his second season, and even then he had only two sacks. Teammates had taken to calling him Chris Paul, because like the NBA guard, he specialized in assists.

Rankins re-evaluated himself after the 2017 season. On the advice of his agents, Buddy Baker and Matthew Pope, he spent a good portion of the offseason at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, where trainer Brandon Johnson held him accountable daily, hourly.

"We worked on a plan of attack, all of the things I wanted to improve on," Rankins says. "I watched a lot of tape of myself and was able to see things, understand why things weren't working. I felt I didn't use enough power.

"I've always been extremely confident about my athletic ability, being able to move well for my size and get around guys. But guys are great athletes in this league, so you have to be able to play that chess match and keep guys on their toes."

With more power in his game, Rankins has been crushing it, doubling his previous career high with eight sacks this season, in addition to career highs with 15 QB hits and 12 tackles for loss. And the interior chaos he has created has been a primary reason for the improvement in the Saints defense.

"Ranks has been unreal this year," Saints defensive end Alex Okafor says. "Everybody saw glimpses last year, but he put it all together this year. I haven't seen a D-tackle play the way he played."

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Three players who came to the Saints in 2018—weakside linebacker Demario Davis, defensive end Marcus Davenport and Apple—also have had impacts.

Last March, Davis was coming off a 135-tackle season but was seen as expendable by the Jets and was about to change teams for the third time in three seasons.

Davis had been a middle linebacker for most of his career, but the Saints thought he could be better on the weak side and signed him to a three-year, $24 million contract. With impact on multiple levels, he has been one of the best free-agent acquisitions in football. He was the only player this season to have at least 110 tackles, five sacks and 10 quarterback hits.

Davis also was elected a team captain by teammates before ever playing a down.

"That shows you've done something more than prove you can cover a running back in the flat or come downhill in the run game," Rankins says. "It shows you are touching people on a different level. He's a hell of a player, hell of a man."

The Saints wanted a pass-rusher in the draft, but they didn't have much hope of getting the one they were excited about with the 27th pick in the first round. So they packaged that pick with their 2019 first-rounder to get the 14th pick, which they used on defensive end Marcus Davenport.

Coaches weren't counting on an immediate impact from Davenport, a raw player coming out of Texas-San Antonio. But since being drafted, he has put on about 20 pounds and has made a number of flashy plays. Pro Football Focus named him to its all-rookie team, citing 28 quarterback pressures and just one missed tackle.

"We like the arc he's on," Loomis says.

Early in the season, the Saints struggled with pass defense. In October, they traded fourth- and seventh-round picks to the Giants for Apple, who had been the 10th overall selection in 2016. Opponents have thrown at Apple more than Lattimore, and Apple has been streaky, but he also has been an upgrade.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 17:  Eli Apple #25 of the New Orleans Saints intercepts a pass against Devin Funchess #17 of the Carolina Panthers at the end of the second quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 17, 2018 in Charlotte, No
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

"He's been the biggest improvement over last year," says Hall of Fame coach and NBC analyst Tony Dungy.

Apple has fit in with the Saints defensive backs in part because they come from the same place. Apple, Bell, Lattimore and safety Kurt Coleman are all Ohio State alums. "We know each other and how each other plays," Bell says. "That helps."


In a divisional playoff game against the Vikings last January, the Saints had a one-point lead with 10 seconds left. That's when safety Marcus Williams put his head down and completely missed a tackle on Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs, allowing him to run 61 yards for a game-winning touchdown as time expired. The Minneapolis Miracle, they called it.

When the 2018 season began, the Saints defense played as if it was still feeling Miracle-whipped. In what was easily their worst performance of the season, the Saints allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to pass for 417 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-40 Bucs win in Week 1. Bucs receiver Mike Evans had 147 yards with Lattimore covering him.

It looked like Diggs and the Vikings might have taken more than that game from the Saints. They had taken their confidence and passion.

Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen told Dungy the Saints were not practicing well early in the year. Lattimore and some of the defensive backs, he said, had been taking it easy.

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

The defense started playing with more of an edge against the Giants in the Week 4. Since then, the defense has been remarkable. And it's because of its effort.

"You see guys hustling, more tenacious than the opposing offense," Jordan says. "That's something we take pride in."

It started with Jordan.

"Cameron Jordan is the lynchpin, the leader," Dungy says. "Yeah, he's a talented guy, but he plays hard on every play, run and pass. He's chasing down running plays across the field. When your best player does that, it rubs off on everyone. That effort and energy they play with is more important than the X's and O's."

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 30: Cameron Jordan #94 of the New Orleans Saints defends during the first half against the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 30, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Im
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

That should not minimize what Allen, the former head coach of the Raiders and a current candidate for the Dolphins head coaching position, has done. After the initial rough patch, Allen simplified the game plans, according to players.

Wherever there is an NFL logo, Allen is respected. His staff is pretty good, too. It includes former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who handles linebackers; former 15-year NFL cornerback Aaron Glenn, the secondary coach; and fireball defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.

Their work is evident in the way the Saints play the run. They held Saquon Barkley to 44 yards, Todd Gurley to 68 and Ezekiel Elliott to 75.

"It starts with our front four," linebacker A.J. Klein says. "They control the line of scrimmage and make our job as linebackers easier. Coach Ryan coaches those guys hard and they are very detailed. The linebackers have been playing great as well. And the back end in the run game, having a loaded box, everyone has been tackling well."

Says Loomis: "Our run defense has been spectacular. It's probably as good as I can ever remember it being."

The pass defense is a little problematic. The team has given up 300 yards or more passing just twice in its past eight games, but overall it allowed more passing yards than all but three teams.

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that opponents haven't been able to run on the Saints. Part of it can be attributed to forcing opponents to keep up with Brees and the Saints offense. And part of it can be attributed to the slow start.

But for the Saints to get where they want to go, they are going to have to keep enemy quarterbacks in check. They know this.

"Nothing," Jordan says, "is taken for granted with this defense."


This defense has created a ruckus around New Orleans in places other than the Superdome.

On many Thursdays during the season, the boys have a night out. About 15 to 20 defenders share a meal along with some lies and laughs, usually in the French Quarter. GW Fins, Doris Metropolitan, Delmonico, Chophouse New Orleans and Desi Vega's are among the places that have been rocked by Jordan and friends.

Jordan, who knows his way around town, picks the place. Former Saints running back Fred McAfee, who is the team's director of player development, often assists with the reservations.

"We're cracking jokes, having good conversations, enjoying some good food," Rankins says. "We go into a restaurant and take it over. Something silly is always happening."

That sometimes includes tableside dancing. "We've got a dancing team," Rankins says. "If there is room to do it, it will happen."

Says Jordan, "You throw some music on, you are going to have guys dancing and gassing each other up."

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 17: Cameron Jordan #94 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates after the game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on December 17, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

One way or another, they demand attention.

The Saints defense has only one Pro Bowl player, Jordan, though they believe Davis and Rankins should have made the team, too.

Dungy says Allen has convinced his defenders that they are the players who should be carrying the Saints. The defenders have taken it to heart.

But the Saints defense isn't about stars. It's about teamwork and discipline and doing little things correctly.

Other defenses have been praised more. The Saints defense has even been obscured by its own offense. And they are OK with that.

"We realize other teams are going to be talked about more and other defenses will be talked about more," Jordan says. "I don't really care about the outside opinion of if we are overlooked."

The Saints defenders are pleased with themselves, regardless of if anyone else is.

Rankins: "Man for man, we stack up with anybody."

Bell: "I think we compare with anybody in the NFL."

Okafor: "I think our defense is second to none. We can play as well as any of those defenses in the playoffs, and we expect to do that."

Bill Feig/Associated Press

The Saints held the Eagles to seven points in November. But the Eagles have a different quarterback now—the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

"We have to be able to make Nick Foles uncomfortable in the pocket," Jordan says. "He has extreme poise in the pocket. We have to do what we have to do to try to eliminate his confidence."

And if the Saints get past the Eagles, a rematch with either the Cowboys (whom the Saints lost to 13-10 in November) or the Rams (whom the Saints beat 45-35 in November) awaits.

"We want another shot at the Cowboys offense," Okafor says. "We didn't play as well as we wanted to that Thursday night. To get a shot to redeem ourselves in the playoffs at home would be huge for us."

Regardless of the opponent, the Saints defenders believe the postseason will be about them, celebrating big plays in end zones as flashes pop.

"We always gonna make a play," Bell says. "Always gonna make a picture."

                     

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

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