After reviewing Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one has to wonder what Dennis Allen could have done if he started the season serving as the New Orleans Saints’ defensive coordinator.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been any different. Maybe the defense would have struggled all year and still crumbled under the weight of all the injuries in the secondary. But after seeing the game plan and how well he called the 24-17 victory, it’s interesting to wonder how different things might have been.
There’s little question this was the best-called game of the season for New Orleans on defense. In his third game as defensive coordinator after taking over for Rob Ryan, Allen finally put his stamp on a game, and there were a lot of differences in how the team operated from other games earlier in the season.
The biggest noticeable differences were in the coverages the team used. After operating primarily out of single-high safety looks with man coverage underneath, the Saints used a variety of looks and did a good job of disguising them.
While the team still used several looks with a single-high safety, the Saints also mixed in several Cover 2, Tampa 2 and “inverted” Cover 2 looks. The defense also played more zone coverage than it typically does.
The mixing and matching of looks made it difficult for Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston to diagnose the defense, especially when New Orleans waited until right before the snap to show its coverage.
The result was that the defense did not get beat on a deep pass. Winston attempted only two deep passes in the game, neither of which were completed. The rest came on short passes, and the Saints were often in position to quickly make a tackle.
It’s too soon to know if Allen will cure all that ails the Saints or if he can keep this up, but this game was a strong step in the right direction.
QUARTERBACK: 3 out of 4
This was a really solid game by Brees. He took what was there, didn’t miss any receivers, and picked apart the Tampa Bay secondary from start to finish. Only three of his passes were deep down the field, and he connected on one for 41 yards. Most of Brees’ passes were in the short and intermediate areas of the field. He didn’t take many risks, mostly because he didn’t to.
RUNNING BACKS: 2.5 out of 4
C.J. Spiller missed an opportunity when he caught a screen pass with 5:49 remaining the first quarter. After catching the ball in the left flat, he allowed his momentum to carry him into a blocker. Had he been able to stop, there was a big cutback lane to his right.
Perhaps not being able to make such plays is why the team left him on the field for only 15 snaps. And of those snaps, approximately five came in the second half.
There was one odd moment late in the second half when Willie Snead motioned over to become the running back and Spiller served as a receiver.
Tim Hightower got the yards that were there for the taking. When he had a hole, he hit it and made the most of the yardage that was available. He had one nice run in the third quarter for a gain of 7 when he beat a defensive end to the edge and turned up field out of 12 personnel. It worked so well the team ran a similar play to the other side out of 11 personnel for a gain of 7 on the next snap.
RECEIVERS: 3 out of 4
Snead again succeeded with his precise route running. It’s clear Brees has a level of trust in Snead and looked for him in big moments. Bonus points for picking up more than 30 yards after the catch.
Brandin Cooks had only three catches for 29 yards, but he should have had more. Whether it was him not being in the right spot or Brees missing a throw, there were two other passes where Cooks was open and Brees simply missed him.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: 2.5 out of 4
Max Unger and Tim Lelito did a stellar job opening up a hole for Hightower on the first series of the game on a 12-yard that put the Saints at the 3-yard line. It would have been impossible for the running back to fail on the play.
Andrus Peat was once again solid. He gets better each week and continues to look more comfortable pulling and getting out into the second level on running plays. He allowed one hurry. There wasn’t much else to nitpick.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 2.5 out of 4
The Saints need to find Cam Jordan a running mate this offseason, whether it be at defensive tackle or coming off the other edge. He remains the only player who can generate consistent pass rush. He had a few pressures, a quarterback hit, a tipped pass, and a few good plays in the running game, including when he stuffed a run from the back side.
New Orleans remained aggressive in this game, blitzing on about 37.5 percent of Winston’s dropbacks, but the team struggled to get consistent pressure — especially when attacking with only four men.
LINEBACKERS: 2.5 out of 4
This wasn’t the best game Dannell Ellerbe has played this season. He’s been better, but there’s something about his presence that makes the defense more successful. In his first game back from sports hernia surgery, Ellerbe was pretty solid against the run. He fits his gaps better than his replacements and is quick to the ball. His performance in coverage was just OK.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: 3 out of 4
Delvin Breaux has really bounced back after a shaky performance against the New York Giants. In the five games since, he’s been targeted 16 times for five receptions and 33 yards. He was not thrown at against the Bucs until there was 4:41 remaining in the fourth quarter. The pass, intended for Mike Evans, fell incomplete.
Breaux was used in an interesting capacity in this game. New Orleans ran an “inverted” Cover 2 several times, with Breaux flowing up the field and serving like a safety and another player covering underneath.