When you think of the Saints in the Sean Payton era, you think of Drew Brees, an explosive passing offense, points and yards. In fact, while the team won a Super Bowl in 2009 behind it’s high powered offense, it was the 2011 unit that broke the NFL record for the most yards from scrimmage in a season ever. You read that correctly, more than the “greatest show on turf”. The Saints have enjoyed a significant amount of success under Payton’s offense and the times the team has struggled it’s been largely due to an ineffective defense. In fact, the Saints may own the distinction for the best offense of all time, but their defense gave up the most yards in NFL history for a season in 2012 so they own that distinction as well. In fairness to Sean Payton he was suspended and not around the year that happened. If you look at the Saints since 2006 when Payton joined, it’s impossible not to consider them an offense only team. But while 2013 was perhaps not the team’s best season in terms of success, it may have been their most balanced. And as Brees and the talent around him has aged, the team is starting to lean more on defense. In fact, you could argue that is the strength of the team going into 2014.
Here is their NFL rank each individual season on offense and defense:
2006: 1st on offense, 11th on defense
2007: 4th on offense, 26th on defense
2008: 1st on offense, 23rd on defense
2009: 1st on offense, 25th on defense
2010: 6th on offense, 4th on defense
2011: 1st on offense, 24th on defense
2012: 2nd on offense, 32nd on defense
2013: 4th on offense, 4th on defense
Only once (in 2011 under then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) in the Payton era have the Saints been in the top 5 defensively before last year. And while that unit did an excellent job of getting off the field on 3rd down, the 2013 version was much more dominant. Since then, significant upgrades in the offseason combined with emerging young talent suggests that for the first time ever the Saints may be more intimidating on defense than on offense. And that’s an offense that still features Drew Brees in his prime with Jimmy Graham at his disposal, assuming the contract situation is worked out.
If you consider the players on the defense, Cam Jordan and Junior Galette are the names that immediately jump out. Jordan is a complete defensive end that can do everything and enjoyed his first Pro Bowl this past season. He plays the run extremely well and he’s now a double digit sack pass rusher. Galette, who’s more of a pass rushing specialist, also posted double digit sacks last season. In addition to these two younger superstars peaking, some feel that 3rd year man Akiem Hicks may be the best player of the bunch on the defensive line. Add that to veteran Brodrick Bunkley, emerging 2nd year man John Jenkins and a nice rotation of young backups and the Saints have as scary and deep of a defensive line as you’ll find.
At linebacker, they’ll return the same veteran starters in Parys Haralson, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne who were all very solid a season ago.
Then you’ve got the defensive backfield. The Saints eliminated the three players that were widely considered liabilities in Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer (liability only because of his torn ACL) and replaced them with the consensus best free agent on the market (Jairus Byrd), an aging but first ballot hall of fame corner (Champ Bailey), and one of the best defensive players from the Canadian Football League (Marcus Ball). They also retained emerging young safety Rafael Bush, who the Falcons tried to poach, by matching their offer sheet. You’ll also remember an offseason ago the Saints invested their 1st round pick of 2013 in safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had an excellent season in his own right, and they landed corner Keenan Lewis who was arguably the best free agent pick up of 2013. This is all before any depth or upgrades are made via the draft in May.
The addition of Rob Ryan to lead the defensive charge has been massive so far for the Saints, but I don’t think Ryan himself imagined he could turn the worst defense of all time into the 4th best in the league in just one season. With the unit peaking and the talent on that side of the ball multiplying, it’s scary to think how good this unit could be in 2014. Getting Byrd alone to replace Jenkins and Harper is massive. Consider the fact that in that historically bad season in 2012 when the Saints were coined the “worst defense of all time”, Pro Football Focus ranked Harper and Jenkins as 87th and 88th overall among 88 qualified graded safeties.
So while the Saints are going on 8 straight seasons of maintaining top 5 offensive status under a still very elite tandem of Brees and Payton (save 2010 when they were 6th), this team’s calling card is starting to lean defense which make them one of the most balanced teams currently in the NFL. Don’t sleep on this defense, they could give Seattle a run for it’s money soon.