Slowly but surely, the New Orleans defense is making strides under Dennis Allen.
New Orleans turned flashes against Houston and early against Carolina into a nearly complete performance against Tampa Bay, holding a team under 20 points and under 300 yards for the first time in 2015.
One problem refuses to go away. The New Orleans defense continues to be crippled by penalties, drive-extending penalties that have a habit of erasing any momentum the Saints built up to that point.
And the Saints veterans took sure aim at the issue after an otherwise promising performance in Tampa on Sunday.
“We still can’t give up those penalties,” veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “We had some good moments, and we had some bad ones, too. The two drives, we got back to some old ways with drawing penalties and silly stuff, but we’ve got to eliminate that.”
New Orleans has been penalized 128 times this season, more than all but two teams in the NFL. Only Buffalo (147) and Tampa Bay (143) have been worse.
The Saints defense has drawn more than half of those flags.
But as many flags as the Saints have drawn this season, the problem is less the number and more about how a splash of yellow on the field has affected the defense this season.
“If you notice in the game when we do start to have penalties, I don’t know if it’s a psyche thing, or what it is, but once we have a couple of penalties, it’s almost like those drives normally tend to turn into points or touchdowns,” free safety Jairus Byrd said. “It’s almost like we get to a third down, and if there’s a penalty in that drive, it compounds itself into more and more. I think that is definitely something that we need to clean up, and even if a penalty does come, we have to be strong enough to bounce back the next play and finish off a drive. We cannot let it snowball into something bigger.”
The Tampa Bay game was an obvious example.
New Orleans was cruising, forcing punts on Tampa Bay’s first three series.
Then Kyle Wilson was flagged for unnecessary roughness twice in a span of three plays. Then the defense forced an incomplete pass on third down that would have forced a field goal, only to see Brandon Browner flagged for defensive holding. The Buccaneers scored on the next play. On an 80-yard touchdown drive, the Saints gave up 35 yards by penalty.
“It puts you behind the eight ball,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “There are a handful of those penalties that are senseless. The only significant scoring drive that they have until later in the game is caused by two personal fouls. That’s 15 yards (plus) 15 yards, and that leads to a touchdown. Those are the ones that frustrate you as a coach.”
Browner, whose 22 penalties are tied for the most committed by any NFL player since the league started keeping individual records in 1999, has drawn most of the criticism for flags, and the veteran has been the most prolific, handing opposing offenses 18 first downs.
The lightning rod for criticism isn’t the only member of the secondary who has been flagged at times this season. Delvin Breaux has drawn 10 flags, and both Wilson and safety Kenny Vaccaro have drawn seven.
Not all penalties are created equal, though. Breaux, for instance, has drawn flags for physicality in coverage, and he’s been so good that he’s given up just 33 yards in the past five games. Vaccaro has been hit with at least two roughing-the-passer calls that were questionable and did not draw fines from the NFL.
“There are some situations where a penalty takes place, and you can get past it,” Payton said. “There are some others that really aren’t acceptable.”
Acceptable or not, the Saints defense knows it has to find a way to cut down on penalties if it wants to keep its momentum going.
Flags can erase a whole game’s worth of good work.
“You cut out the penalties that are self-inflicted, I feel like we definitely wouldn’t be at the bottom of the stats in defense,” linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. “If you just take out half the penalties, it’d be a drastic jump. That’s the No. 1 thing we’ve got to focus on.”