Imagine someone telling you two or three years ago the front seven was going to be the strength of the Noew Orleans Saints' defense soon, and that the front seven would help them win games instead of preventing them from winning games.
It would sound nuts, right? It was even a little staggering to hear defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins talk about the group believing it could be one of the best in the NFL after Monday’s 43-19 win over the Washington Redskins. Not because they didn’t play well — they did, and it was apparent.
But with so much history it can sometimes be hard to accept and trust new evidence.
But there was plenty of evidence Monday. The Saints lost cornerback Marshon Lattimore early in the game because of a concussion, and they had to replace him with Justin Hardee, who is just in his second year playing the position. They still managed to limit Washington to 283 yards of offense. A big reason for that was New Orleans’ ability to stop the run and get after quarterback Alex Smith.
Marcus Davenport was at the forefront of the effort by the pass rush. If he makes good on the investment the Saints made in him, and if this hadn't the game in which Drew Brees broke the all-time passing record, Monday night might have ended up being remembered as the game when everyone collectively agreed the rookie defensive end might be worth those two first-round picks New Orleans gave up to draft him.
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Matched against tackle Trent Williams, who is considered one of the best in the NFL, Davenport more than held his own and managed to piece together a handful of flash plays throughout the night. He was able to beat the left tackle inside for a hit on Smith. Then Davenport used his strength and improved technique to get off a block and knock the ball free from the Washington quarterback.
But there were also less obvious plays, like when Davenport set the edge on a Chris Thompson run, concealed the inside hole and dropped Thompson for a loss of 3 yards when he bounced outside during the fourth quarter. On another play, the defensive end got off a cut block and caught the running back for a quick tackle.
Davenport still sometimes looks raw, or like he’s operating solely off ability. But you can see small improvements each week, and he’s providing more plays on which his plan and execution create standout moments. The more of those he can compile, the better he’ll be. There is starting to be more and more reason for future optimism, if not excitement.
But Davenport was only one small piece of the puzzle against Washington. Monday's game may have played differently if the defense hadn’t created the kind of consistent pressure that caused the quarterback to hurry his passes even when there was no immediate danger within the pocket, which happened on at least three incompletions during the second half.
The Saints are going to be a team that rotates players on defense.
The secondary did tighten up a bit, a process that began a week ago against the New York Giants. Safety Marcus Williams provided plenty of support and was in frame on several deep incompletions, giving help to the safeties.
And until he allowed a gain of 24 yards on a rub route in the fourth quarter, P.J. Williams — the best tackling cornerback on the roster — played what might have been the best game of his career. He did not allow a reception on his four previous targets.
But there were times when Smith had open receivers and just could not get the ball to them because he had to hurry his throws. The best example came on Hardee’s interception. Hardee was trailing his receiver, who had several steps on him — but Smith couldn’t step into his throw with Cam Jordan closing in on him outside of the pocket. The throw was short; Hardee undercut it and picked up his first interception.
Another example came with 2:39 remaining in the third quarter. Smith missed a wide-open Jamison Crowder with Jordan barreling down from the edge. He missed Crowder earlier in the game another time with Jordan closing down on him. The turning point for the pass rush seemed to come after Davenport laid a massive hit on Smith in the second quarter. After that, a lot of the Washington passing attack felt hurried.
The secondary performed pretty well when Smith got off passes that challenged them. Ken Crawley has performed well since the Saints benched him ahead of a Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons. He held his own against the New York Giants, and only surrendered two catches for 13 yards against the Redskins. Vonn Bell also made several plays again this week.
Even Hardee had some positive moments. He missed a tackle on his first play and surrendered 41 yards through the air, but he broke up a deep pass and was in position on most plays. For a player who was seeing his first action at the position in the NFL, he managed to keep things together when it looked like the game might be lost because of Lattimore's injury.
After a rough start, it looks like the Saints might be starting to figure things out on defense.
Michael Thomas wanted to set a tone.
For the record
Drew Brees' record-breaking throw could have gone to any number of players. He had plenty of options thanks to the Washington defense not having its coverage in order.
Washington paid far too much attention to Alvin Kamara underneath, which allowed Tre'Quan Smith and the other players running the vertical routes the opportunity to get favorable matchups down the field.
As Brees said after the game, the name of the play is "Gun King Trips Right Terrapin, 52 Sway, All Go Special, X Shallow Cross, H Wide." Here is what that looks like:
A keen eye might have noticed the play that led to a 46-yard gain by Cam Meredith on the series before looked very similiar.
And just like the first play, it looked like just about everyone was open.
This is just an example of good coaching. The Saints noticed a vulnerability, flipped it just enough so it didn't look exactly the same, and then ran it back. Washington's disorganized defense remained disorganized, and Brees ended up setting the passing record in what was the best manner possible.