Fourteen games into the season, the New Orleans Saints have tried everything to fix one of the league’s worst defenses.
New Orleans overhauled the talent in the offseason (both through the draft and free agency), simplified the scheme and finally made the change from Rob Ryan to Dennis Allen at coordinator after half a season’s worth of frustration.
After all of those changes, the defense is still the same unit that impresses at times and capitulates quickly at others, plagued by penalties, missed assignments and mistakes that erased any momentum built in a good performance at Tampa Bay two weeks ago by taking two steps back Monday against Detroit.
“Well, it wasn’t very good,” head coach Sean Payton said. “There were too many times where we gave up a big run for a touchdown because we are not playing the right gap or the running back is free releasing into the pattern, and he is supposed to be getting hit by the end, or there is a pressure that has a chance to get home, and yet we aren’t timing it up just right.”
New Orleans should have had plenty of momentum, coming off its most complete performance in more than a calendar year and facing a Detroit team that has been one of the league’s most one-dimensional this season.
Instead, Detroit nearly doubled its season average by piling up 150 rushing yards, and Matthew Stafford completed 22 of 25 passes despite the Saints limiting his star receiver, Calvin Johnson, to just one early target.
The problem? New Orleans has been unable to transform lessons from the meeting rooms onto the field.
“We have been making strides in the right direction, especially on defense, and then we kind of knew what to expect (against) Detroit,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “I think we had a great game plan; it was just one of those games like we had early in the year. We did a poor job of executing it all the way across the board, and it’s going to cost us in games.”
The Saints have been adamant that they have put together the right group of guys, a bunch willing to do what it takes in terms of preparation throughout the week.
But no matter who’s in charge, mistakes on the field have persisted. A missed alignment in the running game here, a blown coverage there and, all of a sudden, the Saints are back on their heels again, desperately trying to find a way to stem the tide.
“We have played 14 games,” Williams said. “At some point, you have to take heed to what’s going on and have to adjust your game. I think we don’t carry over as well from the classroom to the field, and that causes problems sometimes when we blow assignments and things.”
Mistakes were expected.
New Orleans overhauled its defense with a youth movement and, at times, the Saints have started six rookies or first-year players on a unit that has seen constant change since the start of the season — whether the result of injury, changes in personnel or alterations in coaching.
“I think that’s been a microcosm of where we’ve been defensively as a unit this year,” Allen said. “Anytime you play with that much youth, you are going to have some mistakes.”
But it hasn’t only been the youth. In some cases — like the case of Delvin Breaux — the player with the least amount of experience has been the most effective. Nearly all of the five rookies have had their moments, too.
No matter how many flashes the Saints show, though, New Orleans finds itself at the bottom of the standings in run defense, opposing passer rating and scoring.
“You can’t keep saying we are young all the time,” Williams said. “We are young, but like I said, we’ve played 14 games. This is your job to grow up, and I think those guys will take heed, but all of our mistakes and sometimes our miscues are not always coming from the young guys, either. We have veterans, myself included; we all have been out of position sometimes, and it hurts us.”
And now it’s almost too late to get it fixed.