The digits on the scoreboard are enough to infuriate some Saints fans.
New Orleans’ defense through five games this season: one interception.
After the Saints deemed them as dispensable and they moved on to other teams, Roman Harper (three interceptions) and Malcolm Jenkins (three interceptions) have a total of six interceptions combined.
But an examination of the unexpected numbers suggest that neither Harper (with the 3-2-1 Carolina Panthers) nor Jenkins (with the 5-1 Philadelphia Eagles) suddenly discovered a gear that could be benefitting the 2-3 Saints if only the organization had given them more time.
Rather, with three interceptions each, they’re capitalizing on opportunities that simply wouldn’t have been presenting themselves had Harper and Jenkins been in New Orleans for the start of the season, mainly errant throws — whether or not they were caused by effective pass rushes — and plain old luck.
What else to call the first picks Harper and Jenkins had this season but good fortune? Harper’s came in a Week 1 win for the Panthers after Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown lost his grip and fumbled a ball he intended to throw for a screen pass left. McCown whipped around, scooped the ball up on the first bounce, and hastily flung it left as defensive end Charles Johnson leveled him. The weak, arcing pass fell directly into the grasp of Harper, who crept toward the line of scrimmage as McCown scrounged around for his fumble.
Jenkins’ came in a Week 2 win at Indianapolis, on a throw Colts quarterback Andrew Luck aimed at T.Y. Hilton an instant or so before the wideout was yanked to the ground by Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin. Officials somehow didn’t whistle for pass interference, and Luck’s attempt sailed beyond where Hilton had been and into the hands of Jenkins.
No Saints defensive back has been on the receiving end of such a gift this season. In fact, New Orleans’ only interception so far this year required an acrobatic leap and over-the-shoulder catch from veteran cornerback Patrick Robinson in an Oct. 5 win over Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, Harper and Jenkins got another of their interceptions in the course of games where the opposing quarterback was sacked four times.
Harper picked off the Bears’ Jay Cutler in a Week 5 win at Chicago on the play immediately following the Panthers’ first of four sacks. Cornerback Bene Benwikere blitzed from the right of Chicago’s line and was charging at Cutler unblocked when the Bears quarterback quickly fired a deep pass down the middle of the field to a receiver covered by two Panthers. The Bears’ Brandon Marshall got his fingers on the throw, but linebacker Thomas Davis tipped the ball up and into the hands of Harper, a third Panther lurking nearby.
As for Jenkins, he intercepted 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an Eagles defeat at San Francisco after the signal-caller had been already been brought down behind the line of scrimmage four times in Week 4. Kaepernick was being blitzed up the middle by cornerback Nolan Carroll, and to avoid a fifth sack, Kaepernick threw a pass to Brandon Lloyd, outside on the right and slanting in. Yet Kaepernick didn’t realize Jenkins had fallen off the man he was guarding — Anquan Boldin, in the right slot and slanting in — and cut in front of Lloyd. Jenkins snatched the pass and ran it back 53 yards for his third career touchdown, his first with the Eagles.
Those are decisions the Saints pass-rushers haven’t been able to force quarterbacks into making. A big reason for that is New Orleans has just six sacks through five games. The Saints’ single-game high this year is two sacks.
The remaining interceptions for Harper and Jenkins occurred on badly overthrown passes in the Panthers’ tie at Cincinnati on Sunday and the Eagles’ victory at Washington in Week 3.
Each play had its level of merit. Harper hauled in Andy Dalton’s off-target throw to tight end Jermaine Gresham in Cincinnati as if he were a receiver running a crossing pattern, and Jenkins sprinted across a large swath of grass to make a diving catch.
But those were essentially unforced quarterback errors the Saints haven’t encountered much of in their wins at home against Minnesota (2-4) and Tampa Bay (1-5) or in their losses on the road at Atlanta (2-4), Cleveland (3-2) and Dallas (5-1).
The disappointment some may feel that Harper and Jenkins were in a seven-way tie for first place in the NFL in interceptions Monday was understandable to a degree. Though they both helped the Saints win Super Bowl XLIV in 2009, Harper had three interceptions for the Saints once in eight seasons before being released and signing with Carolina; and Jenkins never had more than two picks in a year for New Orleans before leaving for Philadelphia in free agency.
Furthermore, signed off the open market in March to a lucrative six-year contract worth up to $54 million, Saints safety Jairus Byrd suffered a season-ending knee injury after four games and zero interceptions.
However, to those who might find comfort in this sort of thing, take solace knowing that Jenkins and Harper probably wouldn’t have been much more productive right now had they stayed in New Orleans than the 2014 Saints have been.