The New Orleans Saints have settled their secondary and haven’t had many coverage busts since playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener, which has been more palatable for the coaching staff.
But one of the reasons for the better organization has been a slight shift in philosophy for the secondary. While the team still uses single-high safety coverages regularly, the defense has mixed in more Tampa 2 looks to help settle the defense.
The coverage is a variant of Cover 2, which features two deep safeties covering a zone. In Tampa 2, the middle linebacker is asked to cover the deep middle area of the field.
The Saints used the coverage on 29 passing attempts last season, and are already up to 19 this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. Fifteen of those plays came with five defensive backs on the field, during more obvious passing situations. The team started using the look more in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns.
It has been an effective coverage for the Saints. The Saints' overall success out of Tampa 2 takes a hit since they allowed a 47-yard touchdown against the Browns out of it, but otherwise, it has worked well. Take that play away, and New Orleans has allowed 12 receptions for 92 yards, which comes out to about 7 yards per attempt.
It’s not a smothering defense, but it works.
Easy does it?
There has been some criticism about Drew Brees taking a cautious approach (as if that’s a bad thing) and not throwing the ball down the field this season.
On its face, it doesn’t make much sense considering he averages 8.73 yards per attempt, which ranks fourth in the NFL, and it further falls apart when you look beneath the surface.
When you remove screen passes, Brees’ completions have traveled an average of 7 yards through the air, which ranks 17th in the NFL, according to Sports Info Solutions. His rate puts him less than a yard outside of the top 10.
He’s completed 8-of-9 passes that traveled between 20 and 29 yards through the air but has missed on all four attempts that have gone 30 or more yards through the air.
Brees isn't airing it out, but it's not all short passes, either.
Biggest reason for optimism
Outside of the fact Brees is playing some of the best football of his life, the defense finally looks like it is starting to put things together.
The run defense, in particular, looks like something this team can lean upon. The Saints are allowing 3.1 yards rushing per attempt, which would easily be the best mark of the Sean Payton era.
What is more impressive is New Orleans has held its opponent to 65 yards rushing or fewer in each of the past three games. The Saints have accomplished that feat in four consecutive games twice in franchise history, doing so in 1986 and 1991. They reached three games four other times (1988, 1989, 1992 and 2001).
The pass rush is also starting to get after quarterbacks with regularity, and it looks like the secondary has settled down.
If all of these elements remain real, even if it is impossible for the run defense to produce at its current rate for 16 games, the Saints should end up in a great position by the end of the year.
Biggest reason for fear
The Saints will face Baltimore, Minnesota, the Rams, Cincinnati and Philadelphia coming out of the bye. Any extended hiccups during that period could lead to this team’s undoing. The Saints need to win at least three of those games to remain in good shape.
It’s hard to know which games to be most concerned over and which ones look tougher on paper than in reality. Los Angeles is clearly a legitimate contender, but all of the other teams have some warts. The Minnesota defense has been shaky, Philadelphia looks like it has come back to earth a little bit, Baltimore lost to the Browns last week, and it feels like the Bengals have more to prove.
The flip side is that all of those teams have talent, it's early in the season, and maybe things click for them and they start rolling.
The other reason for fear is that the Saints defense still needs to prove some things. The secondary is playing better, but there were so many weak moments early in the season that it is going to take a little more proof before there is no longer reason to worry. This stretch will help expose any weaknesses.
The honor belongs to Brees. He’s been the best player on what has been one of the best offenses in the NFL. His efficiency has been incredible to watch so far. He has been so good it was borderline shocking to see him miss on a fade to Michael Thomas last week.
Look at this another way: Brees has been so good that Thomas, who has caught 46 of the 49 passes thrown to him for 519 yards, not being the named MVP makes sense.
It's the only bullet point missing from Drew Brees' resume.
No sense in getting tricky here just to say something surprising. Cam Jordan is the best defensive player on the team, and the story hasn’t changed this season. He ranks fifth in the league in sacks with five, which puts him one off of the league lead.
The Saints have been trying to use different players at safety since he got here, but Vonn Bell keeps earning snaps.
He’s working as the strong safety in nickel packages, and he’s probably playing his best football since being drafted by the Saints. Bell is making plays in all areas of the game and has been one of the bright spots of the defense.