It isn’t a secret the Saints had issues at cornerback last season.
There wasn’t enough depth or talent. Fans at home could see it. The players on the field could feel it. And the teams facing New Orleans tried to expose it.
“I feel like last year, a lot of teams tried to expose us by bringing a five-receiver set,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said.
The personnel wasn’t there to combat it. After Champ Bailey went down and Patrick Robinson struggled on the outside, the Saints struggled to find the personnel to fill out their base defense, let alone nickel and dime packages.
The numbers illustrate these struggles. New Orleans gave up 79.9 yards per game to No. 1 receivers, 55.6 to No. 2 receivers, and 40.9 to all other receivers, according to Football Outsiders. For the sake of reference, the Seattle Seahawks surrendered 41.2 yards per game to No. 1 receivers, 45.3 to No. 2 receivers, and 32.1 to all other receivers.
New Orleans believes it should be much better in this area next season thanks to some of the players added the position this offseason. Teams should no longer be able to exploit the secondary by stretching it out.
Brandon Browner will play the No. 2 spot next to Lewis. Behind those two are Delvin Breaux, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, P.J. Williams, Damian Swann, Terrence Frederick and Brian Dixon. Jean-Baptiste has been receiving positive reviews after largely spending his rookie season on the sidelines, and Breaux has been the talk of organized team activities.
After the rookie intercepted a pass and broke up several others, including two to Brandon Coleman to end Wednesday’s practice, Browner walked through the locker room and talked the CFL import up. When asked about the rookie, Lewis cracked a wide smile and provided similar praise.
“My dude ready,” Lewis said. “He’s ready to go. I told him to keep his confidence high and to play his game. He definitely got game. He’s just making the plays we know he can make. We know we’re going to need him every game, all 16.”
New Orleans isn’t ready to talk about how good they might be — the residual effect of last year’s struggles and false promises. The secondary wants to wait and see how things come together.
But there is hope underneath it all. One of the big advantages for this group is that they’re able to spend the offseason together. That didn’t happen last season. Safety Jairus Byrd was sidelined during the offseason because of back surgery, and then players began to fall one after another because of injuries.
This year, the group gets a full offseason to grow and learn how to play with one another. The benefits can already be felt, both on the field and in the locker room.
“We knew coming into this season we needed to have a different tone anyway coming off the season we had last year,” safety Rafael Bush said. “You bring in guys that’s normally used to winning, and then you bring some guys that are just hungry to get that bad taste out of their mouth.”
It should help that the playbook is being trimmed down, which will allow the players to simply play. Another thing the defense is excited about is that they will be playing a more physical style of football next season.
The days of off-coverage are over — or at least that style of coverage won’t be used as often as before. With a bunch of longer, stronger cornerbacks, the plan is to have those players playing closer to the line of scrimmage where they can jam wide receivers and play more physical.
It makes sense. Browner (6-foot-4), Lewis (6-1), Breaux (6-1) and Jean-Baptiste (6-3) are much taller than some of the guys who logged substantial snaps last season.
“It don’t make sense to play off when you can get your hands on them disrupt their timing from the quarterback to receiver,” Lewis said.
Added together, there’s a lot of confidence in this group. It’s guarded. But it’s hard to keep the optimism under wraps when comparing things to last season.
“I’m not trying to jump the boat, but only time is going to tell,” Lewis said. “Can’t go off right now. We have to see when those lights really on and the bullets start flying who is going to show up. I’m confident in our group. I think this is one of best groups I been around since I started playing.”