Evaluating the problem areas within the Saints’ pass defense

Read any article about the Saints and there’s a good chance you’ll come across a reference about the team providing asylum to a historically porous secondary.

There were weekly updates about the futility. Opposing quarterbacks were posting cumulative ratings against the Saints that would make the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or even Joe Montana jealous. It was said the Saints couldn’t cover anyone, so it was believed the Saints couldn’t cover anyone.

The narrative isn’t entirely wrong. The Saints’ defense was inept and futile and downright bad in several areas. New Orleans officially allowed 4,544 passing yards last season (team stats subtract sack yardage from the total), which ranked 31st in the NFL. The Saints allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 116.2 rating.

And considering Brady, Rodgers and Montana have eclipsed that quarterback rating a combined three times, they probably wish they could have faced the 2015 edition New Orleans defense every week.

The narrative also isn’t entirely correct.

After breaking down and charting the 544 passing plays run against the Saints by route and the man in coverage, it’s undeniable some of the scorn from last season was miscast or at least a little bit overblown. While New Orleans had plenty of issues in coverage, and improvements need to be made in several areas, it’s easy to see not all of it was the result a futile secondary.

Members of the secondary, according to the The Advocate’s charting, were directly responsible for surrendering 2,803 yards on 200-of-326 (61.3 percent) passing. The rest were either the fault of the linebackers or were categorized as being on the “team.”

For the sake of understanding the accounting at use here, the “team” categorization was used when a receiver got open between a zone coverage or someone got open because of broken coverage and the main culprit was not identifiable. The “team” label was also used when an area of the field wasn’t covered due to the scheme or coverage the Saints were using.

The latter instance came into play most often against screens, other short passes to running backs and passes to the flat. While most of the scorn last season came when a cornerback was beaten down the field, these short passes served as a silent killer for the Saints throughout the year.

Because of the style of coverage New Orleans employed, especially early in the season, the short areas of the field near the sidelines often presented opportunities for quarterbacks to drop passes in with little resistance from the defense.

On the aforementioned routes, opposing teams accumulated 1,035 yards on 111-of-138 passing (9 yards per reception). Members of the secondary were marked as being directly responsible for fewer than 200 of those yards. And while some of the yards marked as “team” could fall on a member of the secondary not properly covering a zone, more appeared to be the result of a linebacker not getting over in time to defend the play.

It warrants mention these kind of passes are surrendered by many defenses across the league at a pretty high clip. It’s the yards per reception that indicates how open these routes often were and how big of a problem these plays were for the Saints defense.

Given how easy it often was for teams to attack these areas of the field, it’s surprising it took until Week 10 for a team to build a large part of its offensive game plan on underneath passes, which played a large part in Washington beating New Orleans 47-14.

While the issue wasn’t completely alleviated, these routes were defended much better during the later portion of the season. After allowing 72.3 yards per game on these routes during the first 10 weeks, the average dropped to 52 yards per game over the final six weeks.

Giving up these routes, however, is just one issue the defense faced, and it is not being brought to light to let the secondary off the hook. Those guys could benefit from improvement in play or personnel in some key areas and played a large part in the overall futility of the defense.

Brandon Browner allowed 893 yards, which is too much, though his level of exposure should be better controlled once Keenan Lewis (86 yards surrendered on 6-of-11 passing) returns next year.

But there are also some bright spots. Damian Swann (17-of-28, 224 yards) was showing improvement as the season wore on before being knocked out of action with his third concussion. And Delvin Breaux (557 yards on 37-of-78 passing) appears to have the potential to develop into a shutdown cornerback.

So while there are issues in the secondary, there at least appear to be internal options for improvement. The linebackers’ path out of the weeds isn’t as clear.

Those guys are directly on the hook for 1,093 yards on 94-of-119 passing — and that’s not counting the high percentage of “team” plays the linebackers were responsible for allowing.

And along with all of the “team” yards that came on screens and passes to the flats, another 245 came on crossing routes and curls. Again, some of those are on the secondary. But a high percentage of those plays came as a result of a receiver running underneath the linebackers or sitting in a zone between them over the middle.

It’s an issue to be solved.

The Saints acquired Dannell Ellerbe in a trade with the Miami Dolphins with the idea he would help in this regard. But the linebacker battled injuries all season and was active for only six games. Unless New Orleans is confident in his ability to play all 16 games next season, there’s a strong case to be made for the team placing weakside linebacker at the top of its list of needs this offseason, whether that be via free agency or the draft.

It would be misleading to say this is the only need. There are several things than can be cleaned up or improved to make the team’s overall coverage better. But eliminating easy yards needs to be a major priority, otherwise this narrative is going to hang around for another season.

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