It might be time to declare Delvin Breaux the greatest steal of the offseason.
Lockdown cornerbacks are among the rarest commodities in the NFL. Teams fight over them when they hit the open market, and their prices rise quicker than Sean Payton’s blood pressure after the defense gets flagged for having 12 men on the field. And yet the Saints reached up into Canada this offseason and pulled Breaux down to New Orleans with little fuss.
And the best part is, it only cost New Orleans $1.57 million over three years. Or, in other words, the Saints have him for two more years after this season on what might soon be considered the most team-friendly deal in the NFL.
There were early whispers about Breaux’s ability that grew into chatter and then morphed into bold proclamations. His performance Thursday night against Falcons receiver Julio Jones during New Orleans’ 31-21 win over Atlanta might be the first big step toward turning those proclamations into indisputable facts.
“Delvin Breaux was outstanding,” Payton said. “He had Julio most of the game.”
We knew Breaux was good. He performed well against Dallas’ Terrance Williams and helped shut down Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. And outside of some penalties, he played well against the Arizona Cardinals and held his own against the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers.
But those were all welterweight fights. Thursday’s game was different. It pitted Breaux against arguably the best receiver in the league. Sure, Jones battled a hamstring injury earlier this week, so maybe Breaux didn’t get his absolute best shot, but Jones wasn’t visibly limping around the field. He looked good.
He played most of the snaps, made strong cuts and appeared quick off the line. Jones’ biggest issue through the night was Breaux, who was physical, quick to put a strong jam on the receiver and kept his hand in Jones’ back pocket throughout most of the game.
“You watch a whole bunch of DBs in the league play against him, and I felt like I needed to get a little bit more physical to frustrate him, and I think I did a pretty good job,” Breaux said.
The raw stat line doesn’t tell the story. Jones got his numbers. He recorded six catches for 93 yards, but the majority of those statistics were due to breakdowns or finding weak spots in New Orleans’ coverage.
It appeared the plan for Jones was to use zone coverage to contain him when he lined up in the slot. On some occasions, when Atlanta overloaded one side or Jones went over the middle, Breaux would pass him off. These switches got the Saints in trouble.
On Jones’ first reception, he initially matched up with Breaux who, after jamming the receiver, passed him off and crashed down to cover the flat. No one picked up Jones, which allowed him to get free for a gain of 30 yards.
Two drives later, Jones got open again out of the slot and ran free for an easy 23-yard reception. His next catch came at the end of the second quarter when he initially matched up with Breaux and was passed off when his crossing route carried him over the middle. No one picked up Jones, and he was left free for a 15-yard reception.
“Let him go into the next zone,” Breaux said. “If he would’ve just stayed on my side, whenever he was on our side I’d just take him.”
Jones had one final reception in the fourth quarter when he cut between a zone coverage to get open for 16 yards.
The rest of the time, Jones was mostly silent. Breaux matched up on him 34 times as the primary man in coverage. Jones made two catches on those plays, a curl for 5 yards and a slant for another 4. That’s it. He was erased on most of the other 32 snaps.
Matt Ryan attempted to target Jones with Breaux in coverage three other times. The first two passes were broken up. One came on an inside-out route near the goal line in the first half. The other was during the third quarter on an in route.
The third target came during the fourth quarter, when Ryan tried to hit Jones on a go route. Breaux gained inside positioning and pinned Jones to the sideline, and the pass fell incomplete. Jones was unable to make anything resembling a successful play on the ball.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the performance is that New Orleans mostly left Breaux on an island against Jones. He had no safety help on many plays. He was just there, alone, against one of the NFL’s best receivers, and he held his own.
“I think I did a pretty decent job,” Breaux said. “I didn’t give up no touchdowns, no explosive plays.”
This was the first big test of Breaux’s career. Maybe Jones wasn’t completely himself. Maybe he was a step slower because of his hamstring. But he was good enough for this to be considered a measuring stick for the first-year cornerback.
And Breaux ended up measuring at a level no one could have expected when news broke that the Saints were bringing in some local guy who spent the past two years playing football in Canada.