Some of the Saints biggest issues in recent weeks have come together to help cause what Sean Payton considers to be one of the biggest issues facing his defense.
“Right now our red zone defense isn’t very good,” the Saints coach said. “What I mean by that is the ability to just force some field goals.”
Payton isn’t blowing the issue up or being picky about how his team has performed inside the 20-yard line. It’s been a re-occurring problem at various points throughout the season, but it’s become a glaring issue in recent games.
Over the past three weeks, the Saints have allowed their opponents to score touchdowns on 72.73 percent of their trips to the red zone, which places them well behind the St. Louis Rams, who lead the league over that span at 35.29 percent. For the season, New Orleans is at 62.16 percent.
Even with those issues, the Saints have somehow managed to win two out of their past three contests, but resting on that success would be a mistake. It’s tough to consistently win games when things are that leaky in the red zone.
There are reasons for it. Some players pointed at the inconsistencies with the personnel at linebacker, the team’s issues with covering tight ends is another issue, and the amount of and the amount of opportunities teams are getting in the red zone has also hurt.
“Every week, we’re having different linebackers show up at this point, we have personnel changes showing up,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “It’s something to be said that we’ve stopped the run well within the red zone plenty of times at this point. We’ve got to focus on completely shutting out the opposing team from getting in, and that’s something we’re focusing on currently.”
Jordan isn’t wrong. The Saints have had success against the run in the red zone, especially in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, on their first trip to the red zone, the Giants had consecutive runs stuffed before scoring through the air on fourth down on a pick play to former LSU standout Odell Beckham Jr.
Another New York trip saw a pair of goal-line runs stuffed before it again scored through the air on the same exact play to Beckham. And in last week’s loss to the Tennessee Titans, safety Kenny Vaccaro blew up a running back and David Hawthorne was able to force a fumble on a red-zone run.
The stats also bear Jordan’s sentiments out. New Orleans has allowed only 15 yards on 11 runs inside the red zone during the past three weeks, with no touchdowns allowed. And overall, the Saints have allowed 60 rushing yards on 38 attempts (1.58 yards per carry) and six touchdowns in this area of the field.
The passing stats haven’t been as strong. The Saints have allowed 33 of 51 passes to be completed in the red zone for 265 yards with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. Over the past three games, those numbers are at 18 of 22 for 102 yards with nine touchdowns.
Boiling that down further, New Orleans has had major issues covering tight ends in all areas of the field, but particularly in the red zone. Opposing tight ends have caught 13 of 15 passes for six touchdowns in the red zone against the Saints, and 6 of 6 for two touchdowns over the past three games.
So how do the Saints start stopping tight ends, not just in the red zone, but in all areas of the field?
“I feel like it’s — we’re giving up yards,” safety Jairus Byrd said. “We’re mixing up coverages, we’re doing things like that. I can’t pinpoint and say it’s this thing or that thing. They’re just getting yards.”
But it has to be frustrating, right?
“The stuff that bothers you more is when you have guys running wide open,” he said. “That’s the stuff that’s a backbreaker. It’s like, man. It’s just back to discipline. That’s really all it is, the basics. Physical mistakes you can live with, but when guys are running open that’s the toughest thing.”
There have been a handful of tough moments in recent weeks, but they came to head during Sunday’s loss to the Titans. On Tennessee’s second scoring drive, linebacker Michael Mauti failed to pickup tight end Delanie Walker, and he got open for a 12-yard gain. Walker then scored a 2-yard touchdown on the next play. He wasn’t covered again.
Then, in overtime, tight end Anthony Fasano took off on a delayed route and was not picked up on the winning touchdown.
The Saints had issues picking up the tight ends throughout the whole contest, and some of that can likely be attributed to weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and backup linebacker Ramon Humber being on the shelf. Still, that likely doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
The overall issues in that area of the field haven’t been easy to swallow, either. So how is that fixed?
“I just feel like we’ve got to focus on each individual assignment and just keep getting better, and we’ll be fine,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “But honestly, I couldn’t put it on one specific thing because there’s always small, little details that impacts it. It’s the sum of all the details that we got to get right.”
That will help. So will covering tight ends, keeping teams out of the red zone and getting healthy.