Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
What can we expect from the Saints’ defense?
It’s sure to be a raucous environment, and all eyes will likely be on the Saints’ offense and the Giants’ defense. After all, offense has long been the Saints — and head coach Sean Peyton’s — calling card, and the Giants’ defense has been a very unpleasant surprise this year.
However, the Saints have built themselves a formidable defense over the last several seasons. The Giants’ offense certainly hasn’t lived up to expectations after the investments made over this past offseason. They might find it hard to get consistent traction against an underrated Saints’ defense.
A stout defensive front
Here’s the good news: The Saints’ defensive front isn’t built around twitchy, athletic pass rushers. They don’t have a player like Von Miller, Myles Garrett, or Chase Young who can win with speed as well as power.
Building for speed just hasn’t been a priority for the Saints, instead they built for power up front.
And here’s the bad news: While the Saints’ defensive front isn’t dynamic, it is definitely stout.
New Orleans has a definite type which lends their defensive front versatility as well as strength up front. Lets just look at their depth chart to see the pattern establish pretty quickly.
Cameron Jordan (6-foot-4, 287 pounds)
Carl Granderson (6-foot-5, 261 pounds)
Tanoh Kpassagnon (6-foot-7, 289 pounds)
Payton Turner (6-foot-6, 270 pounds)
Christian Ringo (6-foot-1, 300 pounds)
Shy Tuttle (6-foot-3, 300 pounds)
Albert Huggins (6-foot-3, 305 pounds)
Malcolm Roach (6-foot-3, 290 pounds)
There isn’t a whole lot of separation, between New Orleans’ defensive ends and their defensive tackles. While they look for tackles with good natural leverage, they opt for a body type that allows the players to line up at just about any technique. Their EDGE defenders are powerfully built and sport good length. This allows the Saints to line up with both three and four down linemen, though four-man fronts are much more common.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan remains the focal point of this defensive line. The 2011 first-round pick is still a problem for offenses despite being in his 11th season at 32 years old. He still plays with great technique, leverage, power, and discipline. Jordan is an effective pass rusher (though he doesn’t have any sacks yet) and one of the best run defending defensive ends in the NFL. He currently ranks fifth in run stop win rate per ESPN, and the Saints as a whole rank eighth in run stop win rate.
Other than Jordan, the Giants could have tricky matchups against defensive ends Tanoh Kpassagnon and rookie Payton Turner. Kpassagnon, in his fifth season, currently leads the Saints with two sacks and a forced fumble, while Turner has had a strong first two weeks. He debuted against the Carolina Panthers and totaled six pressures a sack and three tackles for a loss in that game.
While the Saints’ defensive front might not have the star power boasted by a lot of the other fronts on the Giants’ schedule, they shouldn’t be overlooked by the Giants. Certainly not after the Giants’ offensive line has looked shaky and has been rocked by injury.
The Giants’ offensive interior has struggled to hold up at the point of attack — as well as open holes in the running game — and the Saints’ combination of size and power on the edges could make for some difficult matchups for Andrew Thomas and Nate Solder.
While the Saints don’t have many “big” names on their defense beyond Cam Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, we shouldn’t confuse them with a no-name bend-but-don’t-break defense. They have been consistently aggressive and disruptive this season, and it has paid dividends.
We’ll start with their general play demeanor, which seems best summed up as “angry”. Like many defenses, the Saints like to keep the play in front of them, then trigger downhill and swarm to the football. But the Saints aren’t just interested in bringing ball carriers down, they’re often looking to lay hits.
Christian McCaffrey had 20 fewer rushing yards than expected against the Saints’ defense, per NextGenStats (neither the Green Bay nor New England runners had enough carries to qualify)
In the passing game, Green Bay’s receivers had 0.3 yards after catch below expectation per reception. The Panthers fared better, averaging 1.4 yards after the catch per reception above expectation, while the Patriots averaged 0.8 yards.
The range and physicality of the Saints’ secondary is a big part of the reason why they’ve been so effective in limiting running room. But so too has been veteran linebacker Demario Davis. The 32-year-old seems to be everywhere for the Saints, leading the team with 24 tackles and 3 tackles for a loss, as well as three passes defensed (which also leads the team).
The only box Davis hasn’t checked is in the pass rush.
The Saints don’t blitz very often and so far they’ve blitzed 31 times on 130 pass rush snaps (23.8 percent, per ProFootballReference). But when they do blitz, the results tend to be devastating.
The Saints have six interceptions and six sacks through the first three games, with three of those picks and two of their sacks coming off of blitzes. New Orleans seems to turn up the heat in the second half, racking five of their interceptions and four sacks. Opposing quarterbacks have seen their yards per attempt plummet by 2.4 (7.7 to 5.3), passer rating drop by 43.7 (92.9 to 49.2), and ANY/A by 5 (7.3 to 2.3).
All of this could mean tough sledding for a Giants’ offense which has struggled to create space for their receivers and running backs. Likewise, the Giants have been outscored a combine 64-36 (64-29 not counting Daniel Jones’ garbage time touchdown in Week 1) in the second and fourth quarters.
Prepare for man coverage
In-keeping with the Saints’ aggressive philosophies on defense, they are very aggressive in their coverage schemes. The Saints play either Cover 1 or Cover 3 on a clear majority of their snaps, with Cover 1 edging out Cover 3 overall. That shouldn’t be surprising, given the caliber of players the Saints boast in their secondary.
Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has matured into one of the best cover corners in the NFL, and Giants’ receiver Kenny Golladay should expect to see a lot of him over the course of the game. Starting across from Lattimore is rookie Paulson Adebo. Similar to Lattimore, Adebo is a good-sized, athletic and physical cornerback. While he struggled with penalties in the first game — largely stemming from playing a little too aggressively — Adebo has been a sticky coverage corner as well. The Saints also feature cornerback Bradley Roby, who they acquired from the Houston Texans in a trade just before the start of the season.
Backing up those corners are safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Williams, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, and P.J. Williams.
Marcus Williams is the Saints’ primary free safety, patrolling deep middle of the field in their Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells. Williams is a big, rangy, and explosively athletic safety who has 14 interceptions and 32 passes defensed on his resume — 1 pick and 2 passes defensed so far this year.
Jenkins is the veteran of the group, and had been a thorn in the Giants’ side since leaving New Orleans for Philadelphia in 2017. A former free safety, Jenkins has transitioned to the strong safety role and still plays nearly 100 percent of the Saints’ snaps and is second on the team in tackles despite being 34 years old.
Second-year defensive back Gardner-Johnson is the Swiss Army knife of the Saints’ defense. He has the range and athleticism to play the deep middle of the field, the quickness to cover the slot, and the physicality to play downhill. He currently has 7 tackles, 2 passes defensed and a sack to his credit.
The Saints have one of the better secondaries in the NFL, and their blend of veteran experience and youthful athleticism — not to mention raw man coverage ability — is one of the reasons for their success in blitzing.