LONDON — The Saints are fielding the youngest starting defense the NFL has seen since 1991.
LONDON — The New Orleans Saints had to fight on Sunday.
LONDON — Veteran right tackle Zach Strief was forced to leave Sunday's game due to a knee injury.
Their collective performance was probably never as good as they seemed during the preseason, as bad as it seemed during the first two weeks of the season or as strong as it’s looked in the two games since.
It might even be too soon to buy into the promise the New Orleans defense has shown the last two weeks — at least in bulk — but hope exists. And that's significant. No one has been able to say that about the Saints defense in four years, but it looks like some cautious optimism is warranted after Sunday’s 20-0 win over the Miami Dolphins.
“We’ve improved every week, and I wish we could have another game,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “I wish our bye week wasn’t until Week 7 or 8.”
It must be noted the defensive turnaround came against a banged up Cam Newton and a Panthers offense short on weapons (which nevertheless posted a 33-30 win Sunday at New England), and a Miami team led by quarterback Jay Cutler, who scrapped his plans to join the broadcast booth before the season after Ryan Tannehill was injured.
But it was never really about whom the Saints were playing. This team was playing against itself the first two weeks of the season.
Broken coverages. Missed assignments. A lack of communication. The defensive performances the first two weeks are best described as “generally disorganized.” That doesn’t have anything to do with Tom Brady or Sam Bradford. That has to do with cornerbacks being in position and safeties and linebackers getting players in position.
If those same issues existed Sunday, Cutler would be on his way to winning a player of the week award instead of having thrown for 164 yards. This team believes it turned a corner and says all it needed was a little humbling to grow up and start executing.
“First two games, we lost focus,” cornerback Ken Crawley said. “I think we were getting too hyped up about the preseason, and how we shut out a lot of teams, and progress from years back. We just lost track. I feel like now we getting somewhere.”
LONDON — Ken Crawley had to spend two weeks waiting for his opportunity.
If the evolution was as simple as getting humbled and talking more on the field, then the defense should be cooking, and maybe it’s worth purchasing a little bit of hope. The defense is more talented than it was in the past, and the volume of the conversations on the field has increased.
But the development is also more than that. Many members of the secondary said defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn constructed a plan that allows them to “ball out” the past two weeks. In other words, the recent game plans play to their strengths and have cut back on their responsibilities.
“There’s a couple complicated things, but it’s lessening up the load so you don’t have to think as much,” safety Vonn Bell said. “Less checks and whatnot. Just go out there and play what you see, and what you see in the film study, and just go out there and pin your ears back.”
“We went back to our training camp stuff,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Got back to the basics. Got back to the details. Easy calls. Play fast. That’s it. He let us do that, and we’re successful. Let us play man-to-man, let us play a little zone, and we’re good. We can eat.”
The secondary played a big part in shutting down Miami. The team had two goals this week: Stop 23 and 14. Twenty-three, running back Jay Ajayi, finished with 12 carries for 46 yards. Fourteen, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, had six catches for 40 yards. The front seven never gave much up to Ajayi, and the plan for Landry came with Miami’s running game in mind.
Vaccaro matched up with the former LSU wide receiver the whole game because the Dolphins like to use a hurry-up offense, and New Orleans didn’t want to get caught with an extra cornerback on the field.
“If you get caught with small guys on the field, sometimes it can be tough against their run game,” coach Payton said. “Dennis’ staff did a great job just looking real closely at how we can hold up against the three-receiver sets with maybe a little bit more size.”
With Ajayi taken care of, it was up to the secondary to make sure the passing game never got going. With Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley taking care of their guys on the perimeters, it didn’t look like Cutler even attempted a pass down the field until late in the game. He instead settled for underneath stuff and finished the game with an average of 5.85 yards per passing attempt, or just a notch more than the 5 yards per carry Alvin Kamara averaged for the Saints.
“I don’t know how many screens they ran, but that was a tunnel screen, a jet screen,” Jordan said. “It was screens left and right. No matter if it was an even game or they were down 20-0.”
The only time Miami really had much going was during the first quarter, when it accumulated 91 of its 186 yards. came on a long, opening drive during which the Dolphins pushed down to the 4-yard line. But it ended when Crawley recorded an interception.
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He said the play was the result of his film study. He recognized the Dolphins like to use their size at receiver by running individual routes in that area of the field instead of concepts, so he was expecting a fade or a slant. When he saw the way tight end Julius Thomas released off the line of scrimmage, he knew it was a fade and immediately went after the ball.
“That play was an awesome play. That play kind of turned the game over,” Crawley said. “They gave us all of their offense on that first drive. From there on out, we just punished them.”
The Saints recorded two interceptions in a similar manner last week against Carolina when P.J. Williams and Vaccaro used what they saw during film sessions to jump routes. But the thing is, Crawley probably wasn't supposed to be on the field for that play.
Williams was reportedly benched for disciplinary reasons, although Payton declined to confirm the reports after the game. If that hadn’t happened, there’s a chance Crawley is probably sitting, because the team was using Vaccaro in the slot. Now, after two solid performances, it might be hard to keep him off the field moving forward. New Orleans might have some hard decisions to make once Delvin Breaux returns from injured reserve.
That’s a good problem to have. But right now, this defense just wants to keep playing well.
“We know what kind of defense we want to be,” Crawley said. “We always hear about other defenses around the league. We want to be that. We’re a young group. I feel like it’s giving us momentum. I feel like we’re going to go somewhere with this type of defense.”
Maybe there are reasons for hope.
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