Four days after its worst performance of the season, the New Orleans defense now has to face its greatest test.
Few offenses have been more explosive than the Atlanta Falcons, who ride into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a 7:25 p.m. Thursday start with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and the NFL’s No. 4 offense, a balanced, dynamic attack that is producing 32.4 points per game.
At first glance, the Saints defense looks like a mismatch. New Orleans ranks 30th in the NFL in rushing defense, 30th in opponent passer rating and dead-last in total yardage, hemorrhaging 409 yards per game.
But defensive coordinator Rob Ryan still said he believes this rebuilt defense has a chance to turn things around.
“I know we’re on the verge of breaking through,” Ryan said. “Stats don’t mean anything to us. I know what it looks like. You can feel it. It’s coming, I know it is.”
New Orleans has to start by fixing its run defense, particularly against Freeman, the second-year back who is tied for second in the NFL with 405 rushing yards despite opening the season as Atlanta’s change-of-pace back.
Freeman is thriving this season in a rushing offense heavily steeped in the outside zone, the same play a previously anemic Philadelphia running game used to rack up 186 yards, more than double its season average.
Philadelphia wasn’t the only team to build its attack around success on the ground. The Saints have struggled mightily against almost every opponent’s rushing attack this season.
In an NFL where 13 defenses are giving fewer than 100 rushing yards per game, New Orleans has allowed more than 100 rushing yards in all five games, allowing opponents to eclipse 4.0 yards per carry every week.
“They outnumbered us on the edge,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “They found a play that was beating what we were doing, and they just kept running it over and over and over.”
New Orleans has shown it can handle the outside zone at least once this season. Facing a Dallas run game in Week 4 that’s predicated heavily on the outside zone, the Saints limited the Cowboys to 70 yards and 2.6 yards per carry after a game-opening 45-yard burst by Lance Dunbar.
Then the Saints lost rookie defensive end Bobby Richardson to a hip injury. Richardson’s been exceptional against the run; he was making the first start of his career against Dallas. Without Richardson anchoring the strong side, the Eagles outnumbered the Saints and created extra gaps, gaps that might have been closed if Richardson had been there to make a play on the ball carrier.
“You’ve just got to be able to feel it,” Richardson said. “You have to know where the ball is, you have to have instincts.”
With teams regularly picking up sizable gains in the running game, the Saints’ pass rush has struggled, too.
Once a team establishes the run, the offense can then start building the passing game on play-action and short, quick throws, taking the steam out of the rush.
“You are always looking to get quick pressure on the quarterback,” Ryan said. “Nowadays, guys are throwing the ball so quickly. Sack numbers are one thing, but we need to keep generating pressure (and) getting the quarterback off of his spot.”
New Orleans also needs to do a better job of getting rush from more than one spot. Hau’oli Kikaha has flashed with three sacks; defensive end Cam Jordan has regularly put pressure on quarterbacks, but he has only one sack, despite what Ryan calls an excellent individual season so far.
“We’re not getting enough pressure on the quarterback,” Jordan said. “I have fallen off a couple of sacks. I have also been evaded a few times. That is personally frustrating. We get a sack that gets negated by a penalty. That is something that you have to focus on. That is something that you have to put on yourself to do more. I have to do more.”
And the lack of pass rush puts even more pressure on a secondary that has been constantly shifting this season because of injuries, a secondary that faces one of the NFL’s best wide receivers in Jones this week. Newcomer Delvin Breaux and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro have both played well this season, but every other spot in the secondary has been hit by injury; safety Jairus Byrd just returned to the lineup, and the injury that has limited Keenan Lewis has forced the Saints to rely on a struggling Brandon Browner at an outside cornerback spot.
Even with a nagging hamstring injury, Jones will be a handful this Thursday, and the Saints will likely be without promising rookie nickel back Damian Swann, who suffered a concussion against Philadelphia.
“In my opinion, he is the best wide receiver in football,” Ryan said. “He does everything well.”
Ryan, whose job security has been constantly questioned over the past two years as the Saints struggle defensively, remains confident New Orleans can find answers. Despite all of the ugly numbers, the Saints defense has shown glimpses this season, brief flashes of what Ryan said he thinks this defense can be. There are encouraging individual performances; Breaux, Jordan, Kikaha and rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony have all caught Ryan’s eye so far.
But it hasn’t been consistent yet.
“Just keep blaming me,” Ryan said. “I know this thing’s going to be great here, too. Our guys are working enough that I know it is getting turned around. It will be fixed. It’s not great yet, obviously. We’re probably last in the league in every single category, whatever it is. I’ve seen teams go from last to first after five weeks. We plan on getting better.”
New Orleans needs that improvement to start showing up now.