GLENDALE, Ariz. — Walking around the locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium, it was hard not to find a member of the defense who didn’t feel some degree of optimism about their performance against the Arizona Cardinals.
Sure, the Saints were getting ready to board the bus as 31-19 losers, but the unit felt it performed well enough to avoid being accused of throwing the offense underneath it. They kept this group in the game right up until the decision to punt with around 2 minutes remaining led to Arizona’s final touchdown Sunday afternoon.
The optimism isn’t unwarranted. The pass rush wasn’t bad. It could have been better — it can always be better — but it produced enough results in key moments to cause hiccups for Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer. And the coverage, at times, was impressive.
But there also were moments when the coverage broke down, the pass rush was nonexistent and Arizona was able to capitalize too easily.
“I thought there were a handful of things when we watch the tape we will be encouraged with,” coach Sean Payton said.
The Saints introduced some new wrinkles Sunday. After playing Cover 1 (one single-high safety), the team showed more Cover 2 looks. It mixed fronts, going to 3-4 looks in subpackages at times, and was forced to use six defensive backs on the field to combat Arizona’s weapons, which at times exposed the lack of depth the Saints have at cornerback. The team also blitzed more often than it had at any point throughout the preseason.
Part of the plan was to sit back and be patient to eliminate Arizona’s ability to convert on big plays, which might explain why New Orleans struggled to produce a pass rush early in the game. Palmer’s quick trigger also led to some of those issues.
On the first two drives of the game, outside of one play, Palmer got rid of the ball in an average of 2.18 seconds. The outlier play in that equation was a low moment for the Saints. On that play, Palmer was allowed to flood the pocket and roll to the right side of the field. Rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha pressured him on two separate occasions during the play. But given 8.07 seconds to get open, John Brown broke free of the coverage in the front corner of the end zone. Those kind of plays can’t happen if this defense wants to be taken seriously and improve upon the letdowns of last season.
It’s not surprising that, on the plays when the Saints created pressure, Palmer was forced to hold the ball around 3 seconds. If the secondary can continue to force quarterbacks to get deeper in their reads, then more opportunities should continue to present themselves for the pass rush. And while those opportunities need to be more plentiful and consistent, the defense believes it started producing more results once the Arizona offense ran through its handful of scripted plays to start the game.
“Once they got off their script and their starting stuff, we felt more comfortable with what we were doing,” cornerback Damian Swann said. “We have been watching it all week, so once they started running their stuff, we were able to get some stops and get off the field.”
Some tough breaks are to be expected. Given how well he performed during the offseason, it’s easy to forget that cornerback Delvin Breaux is technically a rookie in his first season in the NFL. If somehow that was forgotten over the past several weeks, he brought it back to full attention against the Cardinals. He was whistled for four penalties — including two on one play — as a result of his physical play at the line.
It’s all part of the learning process. He often was lauded for being one of the tougher players at the line of scrimmage during camp. It was that same physical style that left him in trouble against the Cardinals. At some point he’ll figure out what he can and can’t get away with. And there were moments when his ability shined, such as when he broke up a pass to Brown late in the fourth quarter that gave the Saints the ball with a chance to take the lead.
Swann, a fellow rookie, also learned a valuable lesson on one of the bigger plays of the game when he was picked at the line of scrimmage and allowed tight end Darren Fells to get open for a 48-yard reception.
“That’s one of those things where we just have to play different levels,” Swann said. “We have to fight through those things. We are DBs. We can’t get picked. That was on me.”
But the bottom line is the Saints defense played well enough to give the offense opportunities to win the game. One such opportunity came when Kikaha forced a fumble: The offense turned around and answered the bell by throwing an interception on the next series.
If the offense had been able to convert in the red zone, only the positive aspects of the defensive performance would be accentuated. The story would be about a young group that has the potential to improve. Instead, the miscues are pointed out as areas of concern instead of things that need to be cleaned up before playing Tampa Bay next week.
Who knows, maybe safety Jairus Byrd and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe will be a step closer to returning. Both players would have helped Sunday. After Rafael Bush left with an injury, strong safety Jamarca Sanford had to play free safety. Ellerbe certainly would have kept David Hawthorne out of coverage, where he struggled at times and gave up an easy touchdown.
The Saints say the outside view can be whatever it wants. The defense believes there’s plenty to be encouraged about.
Time will tell.