After Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, Saints coach Sean Payton cracked that he told his team he was going to put on a second line to celebrate their first sack of the preseason.
There was obvious sarcasm in his comment. It took the Saints far too long to record their first sack of the preseason. Coming off of last season, when a lack of pass rush was often a problem, it was troubling to see the issue linger into the preseason.
The issue isn’t over. Leaving the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with one sack in a 27-13 loss isn’t going to help anyone sleep easier at night. It’s still an issue and one that needs to be solved if this team is going to compete for a playoff spot and finally record some turnovers.
But Sunday’s performance was, at the very least, a step in the right direction. After predominately employing a four-man rush during the first preseason game, New Orleans blitzed about 20 times against the Texans and finally created some pressure.
“We came in the game more aggressive,” defensive end Kasim Edebali said. “We just wanted to put different guys in different positions and take advantage.”
It’s not a surprise that the first sack didn’t come until the third quarter when rookie defensive linemen Tavaris Barnes and Tyeler Davison broke through the middle of the offensive line to bring down Tom Savage. Starter Brian Hoyer did not allow many opportunities for the Saints pass rushers to get into the backfield.
On Hoyer’s first series, he did not hold the ball longer than 1.82 seconds on his first three passes. His fourth, a pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone, drew a pass interference flag on cornerback Keenan Lewis. On his next series, the longest Hoyer held the ball was 1.97 seconds.
For the sake of reference, Peyton Manning led the NFL with a time to throw of 2.24 seconds. The league average was around 2.60 seconds. With Hoyer getting rid of the ball so quickly, it was almost impossible for New Orleans to get into the backfield.
It wasn’t until the third series of the game that New Orleans finally started getting after Hoyer. After allowing the Texans to pick up a first down, rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha busted through the Houston line and forced a Hoyer incompletion. On the next down, Kikaha got into the backfield again and forced another incompletion.
They weren’t sacks, but both plays caused an offensive failure and are gladly accepted after the defense logged only 16 combined hurries and quarterback hits during the first two preseason games.
And still, getting the first one, even if it was against the reserves, was viewed as a positive first step by the defense.
“Coach (Bill) Johnson pushed on that the past two weeks: ‘We don’t have a sack, we don’t have a sack.’ So we worked extra hard this week, especially after practice working on pass rush,” Barnes said.
The defense is confident they’ll eventually create a consistent pass rush. It remains to be seen if the team will have to design different ways to create them.
During the first two preseason games, the defense didn’t often win one-on-one matchups or get after the quarterback by simply sending four men. It’s possible the defense will have to create those opportunities by blitzing, as the Saints did Sunday afternoon.
Payton doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment. He said the reason it looked that way against the Texans is because the team installed several of its pressure packages before the game and used the contest as a way to evaluate what is working and what isn’t.
“Whether or not that becomes something we have to do more of if we don’t feel like we’re getting enough of a rush, that’s still to be determined,” Payton said. “Hopefully we’re able to have a pretty good balance and mix there where we’re not reliant on pressure. That’s something we got to work on.”
How much work needs to put in remains to be seen. Injuries and other issues have camouflaged where this unit stands.
So while Sunday might have been a step forward, it remains to be seen if it was a big enough step.