The book is out on how to attack the Saints defense.
Before last week’s game against the Houston Texans, the easiest ways to move the ball against the New Orleans defense was to attack the flats, wait for the zone coverage over the middle to bust and run the ball whenever possible.
Houston tested all three options early in the game and found that New Orleans wasn’t going to be as leaky in the flats or over the middle. But the on the second drive of the game, after connecting on a 13-yard pass, the Texans put the ball on the ground and traveled the next 27 yards over five running plays. They then scored on a 3-yard pass.
It’s an issue that isn’t going away and does not appear it will be fixed by Dennis Allen’s promotion to defensive coordinator.
New Orleans has allowed 1,479 rushing yards on 304 attempts. The average of 4.9 yards per carry is the worst mark in the NFL. During Sunday’s 24-6 loss to Houston, that figure dropped to 4.4 yards per carry, which is slightly better than usual, but this defense could be tested again this weekend against the Carolina Panthers.
Some of the issues behind the spotty play against the run have been obvious. It’s easy to see when a player defends the wrong gap, fails to set the edge and overpursues or misses a tackle. Those issues have been prevalent at various junctures throughout the season.
What’s harder to see is why those things are happening and figure out how they can be avoided. Coach Sean Payton said he believes some of the issues are more mental than physical and can be solved through preparation and young players gaining experience.
Payton said the key to being good against the run is having the ability to look at a formation, process for a few seconds, and then being able to diagnose what comes next. Through this step, the defense can eliminate a lot of options and focus in on a handful of plays that might come next.
Veteran players usually have an easier time with this process and can locate a few indicators such as the formation, depth of the backfield or other things that allow them to eliminate certain plays. Players will also look to see which gap the running back is in, if the tackle is sitting back on his heels or ready to get out and go through run and pass reads before a play.
“You can point to fits, one specific thing (or) you can point to — generally, when you watch a play, it would not the same thing over and over again,” Payton said. “It’s understanding formations though and where we’re fitting.
“I think half the battle, when you see good defenses, and we’re going to see one this week, is that they recognize the formation, they look at it for a second and the right away, in their mind, they know that it’s down to one of three plays.”
Misdiagnosing — or not diagnosing — has been an issue at times this season. But some players don’t believe that should be used as an excuse. When that happens, it quickly becomes clear that the play has been misdiagnosed and there’s time to adjust and limit the impact of the play.
That isn’t happening frequently enough for this defense. And the fact that New Orleans struggles to get players around the ball is a big reason this defense has allowed 47 running plays of 10 or more yards this season, which is the second most in the NFL behind Miami’s 48.
“I think for the most part we need to be more violent as a defense,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I think guys are just OK with having their gap and not trying to get off the block and make the play.
“I think we need to populate the ball better. I think we give up a lot of long runs that other teams cover by having a lot more people around the ball.”
Changing defensive coordinators can’t help with that issue. But it is something the defense needs to improve over the final five weeks, and Vaccaro said he’s hoping to see a change in “culture,” which is something he’s alluded to several times over the last two seasons.
“I think it’s a want-to, that’s an individual effort,” he said. “That’s what I was saying after the Redskins game. That doesn’t have to do with any coaching or scheme. That’s player-to-player, playing hard.
“Great defenses have a standard that’s been set and that standard can’t be altered. I think everyone is held to that standard and everybody is accountable for it. We need to get that back.”
It will be imperative this week that the Saints get players to the ball and diagnose plays quickly. If they don’t, Cam Newton and Carolina will be able to eat this defense up with option plays.
New Orleans did a decent job against the Panthers in their last meeting by limiting Carolina to 119 yards on 30 carries (3.9 yards per attempt), but there were some letdowns — which has been the case in nearly every game this season.
That issue remains one of the biggest one this unit needs to clean up.