Every team plays some variation of the same coverages.
There are only so many ways a secondary can line up and defend an offense. But the smaller details of how those coverages get played vary from location to location, and those details often determine success or failure.
“You could go to any defense and say, ‘Do you play Cover 3?’ I’m sure they have a Cover 3 in their repertoire,” Saints safety Kurt Coleman said. “But it’s a matter of how do they want you to align, how do they want you to play certain formations? That stuff can only be gained through experience and time together.”
That’s why this week’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is essentially the seventh game of the season for the New Orleans secondary. That might sound like ample time to get Eli Apple, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Giants in October, fully acclimated, but also remember he didn't get to spend an offseason learning the defense.
The cornerback has been learning on the fly. There have been some games where the results have been good. New Orleans shut down the Philadelphia and Cincinnati passing attacks, save for Apple surrendering a touchdown at the goal line against the Bengals. And despite Falcons receiver Julio Jones picking up 147 yards, not all of which were on Apple, it felt like the cornerback limited the damage to a certain degree.
But there have also been some bumpy moments. The cornerback surrendered four catches for 71 yards to Dallas’ Michael Gallup last week and should have given up another 55 yards to the wide receiver after biting on a double move, but Dak Prescott overthrew the pass.
So while there is still room for improvement, the Saints think it will come as he continues to settle into the defense. In the meantime, the team is impressed with how quickly he has been able to pick things up.
“I wouldn’t say that he’s totally into every small thing that we’re doing, but for him to come in and be able to play and have an understanding of what we’re doing, you have to be impressed with him,” secondary coach Aaron Glenn said. “That goes to show his football intellect.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was referring to his own team Thursday night.
The Saints have been mindful of how they’ve put together their plans. They’ve been careful not to put too much on Apple’s plate, which led to them keeping things relatively simple at the start and ramping up from there.
The plan opened up a little bit against Atlanta when Apple followed Jones. Last week, New Orleans had Marshon Lattimore shadow Amari Cooper. Such plans would not have been possible during the first few weeks after Apple arrived.
“It takes a little bit time to get comfortable within the system, and within the language and the verbiage, and some of those things,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “So, the more variables that you add to that, the more difficult it is.
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“I think the initial plan coming in was Marshon on the right, Eli on the left and get him accustomed to (that), get him comfortable with what we're doing, and the things that we're going to ask him to do, and then as we do that, then we can begin to look at different things that we might do within the game plan to get ourselves in the best matchups.”
Apple is still learning the terminology of the defense. The Saints say they reiterate it to him before every play, after every play, and between the snap. As safety Vonn Bell said, the goal is to keep “refreshing him.” There have been moments so far when the budding chemistry between players have led to plays getting made, such as the defense successfully defending against a pair of rub routes last week, a concept that has plagued the defense in recent years.
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But the most prominent example of the secondary adjusting in recent weeks came on a play against Philadelphia where two longer-tenured players communicated something before the snap.
When the man Lattimore was covering ran a crossing route, safety Marcus Williams came down to pick him up, and Lattimore dropped deep to help Apple, who was covering Nelson Agholor. The pass went deep, and Lattimore got there in time to intercept the pass.
The Packers tried to run the same play against the Saints last year in Week 7 when Lattimore took off down the field to break up a deep pass to Jordy Nelson.
“We’ve been waiting on one of those all year, for one of them to throw that,” Lattimore said. “It worked out perfectly. Our communication is on point.”
The next time it comes up, Apple will recognize the play from the Philadelphia game. He’s settling in. It will just take some time before it gets all the way there.