The New Orleans Saints’ remade defense felt hard to figure out for most of the 2015 season.
New Orleans had obvious bright spots, beginning with resurgent, impressive campaigns from buliding blocks like Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro and helped by an influx of talented first-year players like Delvin Breaux, Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha.
But the overall numbers failed to reflect those performances. New Orleans set NFL records for opposer passer rating (116.2), touchdown passes allowed (45), and the Saints finished dead-last in the NFL in points allowed (29.8 points per game) and yards per play (6.6).
Penalties played a key role in the disconnect between the promising individual performances and the defense’s problems as a whole. According to NFL statistics, the Saints defense gave up 54 first downs by penalty in 2015, by far the most a New Orleans team has ever allowed in records that stretch back to 1981.
Before the 2015 season, the Saints’ previous high for first downs allowed by penalty was 38, set in 2011. When a defense gift-wraps that many drive-extending first downs -- New Orleans gave up an average of 3.3 first downs by penalty per game -- it’s impossible to maintain any kind of momentum.
“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 after the Saints’ win over Tampa Bay in December. “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.”
Adding free-agent cornerback Brandon Browner to the mix played an obvious role in the Saints’ penalty problems. By signing Browner, New Orleans obtained a player who had already led the NFL in penalties twice in his career, and the cornerback set an NFL record by drawing 24 flags, 19 of which resulted in a first down for the opponent.
New Orleans knew Browner’s history. Browner’s previous team, New England, set a team record with 45 first downs allowed by penalty in 2014, a year when he allowed 12.
Breaux finished second, allowing nine first downs by penalty, but the Saints’ breakout star in the secondary largely cleaned up his game after giving up three first downs by penalty in the season-opener against Arizona. Behind the two corners, nickel back Kyle Wilson gave up six first downs by flag, Vaccaro and Bobby Richardson allowed four apiece and the remaining flags were spread across the defense.
Defensive backs, in particular, face a tougher task than ever before due to changes in the NFL’s contact rules against receivers, but the Saints downplayed those difficulties for much of the season, and with good reason. In 2014, the year the NFL tightened its coverage rules more than ever, New Orleans gave up just 29 first downs due to penalty, nearly half of the 54 incurred this year.
“It is kind of give or take,” Vaccaro said. “You want to be aggressive and you want to be relentless but at the same time, you have to be smart. I think there are good and bad penalties. Our coaches tell us that all of the time. Some things you will take and then some that you cannot stand for. You have got to pick and choose.”
New Orleans worked hard at limiting the penalties for much of the season, bringing referees in to practice and asking the cornerbacks to work with boxing gloves, a method that helped Breaux considerably.
The Saints finally made progress near the end of the season.
Frustrated after giving up five first downs due to penalty in an otherwise sterling performance by the defense, Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen kept hammering the point home, and New Orleans gave up just three penalty first downs in the final three games.
“I don’t think it has anything to do necessarily with technique,” Vaccaro said after New Orleans gave up just one first down due to penalty against Detroit and Jacksonville. “I just think that we’re kind of on a higher alert. If it’s close, they’re going to call it. We understand that, so we just have to play. We can’t let the referees control the game. We have to play through it.”
Despite the numbers that led to former coordinator Rob Ryan’s ouster, the New Orleans defense believes it can turn things around next season.
“We have a lot of potential, and it showed throughout the season,” Kikaha said. “We had a lot of highlights and bright spots, we just need to be consistent and bring that all together.”
Reducing the first downs the offense never had to earn would be a good start.