There’s no longer anything to lose.
Maybe things were too tight or too complicated before. Something was holding the New Orleans Saints defense back during the first few weeks of the season, and at times it was frustrating. They knew they were better than what they were putting on film, but now they feel like things are starting to come together.
It began two weeks ago against the Detroit Lions. The pass rush emerged. Turnovers were created. It finally felt right. And after a few letdowns against the Green Bay Packers, those feelings continued during Sunday’s 44-23 win.
“I told you, we play like we got nothing to lose, go out there and bust heads,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Packers are a good team, and they come into our house, but we couldn’t fall to 2-5. That wasn’t happening. We did everything we could to get to 3-4.”
Now the Saints will attempt to use the momentum they built Sunday night this Thursday in a critical divisional game against the Panthers in Carolina. If New Orleans wins, it would improve to .500 and move into first place in the NFC South.
It won’t be easy. The Saints are coming off a short week and will need to concoct a way to keep Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the pocket and eliminate his ability to both extend plays and take off and run.
New Orleans will have some carryover from last week, since the team prepared for Aaron Rodgers, who also likes to extend plays with his feet. But Newton is more dangerous when running and is a different player.
“That ability creates challenges for the secondary when the play is extended and you have someone like him who comes out of what maybe looks like a sack and all of the sudden you have three more seconds to cover,” coach Sean Payton said. “That makes it challenging.”
Coming up against a quarterback who is capable of beating you with his feet might change the approach of the defensive line this week. When facing a mobile quarterback, the goal is to keep him contained to the pocket instead of flushing him out, where he can extend the play and either run or find a receiver open down the field.
The goal is to collapse the pocket around him and eventually squeeze him out. On top of that, sometimes defenses choose to put a spy on mobile quarterbacks and treat them as a sixth skill player on the field.
However the Saints choose to approach Newton, they’re coming up against him at a time when the defensive line finally feels like it is starting to figure things out.
Through the first six weeks of the season, pass rusher Junior Galette, who has four sacks and at least 25 pressures this season, was one of the few players who was recording results through the early portion of the season. Before Sunday’s game, the rest of the defensive line had accumulated two sacks.
That changed against the Packers. Cameron Jordan, who recorded 12.5 sacks last season, broke out for a pair of sacks. And Akiem Hicks, who struggled through the early portion of the season, was able to crash the pocket, create pressure, and record a few run stuffs.
“As a defensive line, we’re just trying to come together,” Jordan said. “It’s been trying, for sure, the first couple games. You don’t see the same numbers as last year. You feel like you’re the same people and you put in the same amount of effort, if not more, when things don’t click the way you want them too.”
So what was the issue early in the season and what has changed?
“We can go game-by-game really,” Jordan said. “Quarterbacks seem to be releasing the ball a little bit faster, everyone knows that one. But the defensive line — I wouldn’t say has had trouble getting into the backfield — but it hasn’t gotten faster to the backfield with the ball being released as it is. Doing a little bit more quick routes, everybody knows a little more about us. Now we’re catching a little more chips, everyone knows about us.”
Finding a way to solve some of those issues also has helped the defensive solve another issue: creating turnovers. After creating three turnovers during the early portion of the season, the Saints have created four in the past two weeks.
The secondary knows where to look to give credit.
“Anytime we got a quarterback a little rattled, don’t know where the pressure going to come from, it always give a defensive back more opportunities to make plays,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said.
So does the secondary know what’s changed with the defensive line?
“Maybe they’re getting more sleep, I don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re rushing better,” Vaccaro said. “Maybe we’re getting more sleep. I can’t explain it, but the rush is getting better.”