On the Brinck: Will the Saints come marching in?

by Nathan Albrinck | 11/10/17 1:00am

After three consecutive, disappointing 7-9 seasons and an 0-2 start this year, the New Orleans Saints have reeled off six straight wins and are making a case they could go deep in the playoffs.

Despite the team’s struggles in recent years, the Saints offense has been as good or better than every other team in the league. Unfortunately, pairing a powerhouse offense with a pitiful defense has been a common storyline for the Saints in recent years. New Orleans finished first in total yards in 2014 and 2016 and second in 2015. Their defense ended 31st in total yards in 2014 and 2015 and 27th in 2016.

Over their win streak, the Saints have won by an average of over 15 points, including three blowout wins by over 20 points. Their recent success can be attributed to the ever-youthful Drew Brees, a reenergized defense and a strong 2017 National Football League Draft class.

Since his trade to the Big Easy before the 2006 season, Brees has cemented his place in Canton as a future Hall-of-Famer. In 11 full seasons with the Saints, Brees has led the league in passing seven times, gone to the Pro Bowl 10 times and won the only Super Bowl in Saints history. He has five 5,000-yard seasons — the only player in NFL history with multiple 5,000-yd seasons.

This season, Brees is once again playing at a high level. Halfway through the 2017 season, he has passed for 2,214-yds, 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Though these numbers aren’t as impressive as Saints fans might be used to, he is passing more efficiently than he ever has before, completing passes at a rate of 71.6 percent. With Brees at the helm, the Saints offense has been bolstered by recent draft picks Alvin Kamara and Brandon Coleman and a resurgent defense, ranked 13th in the league in 2017.

With their first pick in the 2017 Draft, the Saints drafted Marshon Lattimore at No. 11 from Ohio State University. Lattimore has immediately become one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have a brutal 37.4 passer rating with Lattimore in coverage, the second lowest mark in the NFL.

Late in the first round, with their second pick in the draft, the Saints were able to draft Ryan Ramczyk, who dropped to the No. 32 slot because of injury worries. Ramczyk has started every game this season on an offensive line that has only allowed Brees to be sacked eight times all year.

The Saints drafted Marcus Williams, a safety from Utah, with their third pick of the draft. Williams, another every-game starter for the Saints, has proved an effective deep safety for head coach Sean Payton. Williams’ fit at safety allowed the Saints to move their utility man, Kenny Vaccaro, to a more permanent role as a slot cornerback, where he has emerged as a defensive force in his fifth season with the Saints. Vaccaro holds opposing quarterbacks to a 40.7 passer rating, just behind Lattimore at third in the league.

New Orleans traded up to get Kamara, a running back from the University of Tennessee, with the No. 67 pick. Kamara’s impact has been quickly felt as a complement to Mark Ingram. Kamara has 311 yards and three touchdowns so far this season, with an impressive six yards per carry. He’s also the Saints third leading receiver, with 38 receptions, 341 receiving yards and two more touchdowns.

After their 0-2 start, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen altered his defensive strategy. They began favoring man coverage over zone coverage and blitzing significantly more, from 28 percent of snaps after two games to 39 percent of snaps now, the sixth highest rate in the NFL.

Allen’s strategy has been paying dividends. In the Saints’ two losses, the Minnesota Vikings scored 29 points and the New England Patriots scored 36 points. Since then, the Saints have given up an average of just 15 points per game, though this is skewed by a 52-38 win over the Detroit Lions. Excluding that shootout, the Saints have given up 16.7 points per game.

Even against the Lions, where the Saints gave up 38 points (though 14 points came from a Brees interception returned for a touchdown and a punt return), the defense still saved the day. Four minutes into the game, Vaccaro recovered a fumble in the end zone. In the third quarter, Lattimore returned a Matthew Stafford pass for six points. And finally, with five minutes to go in the game and the Lions on the brink of a 35-point comeback, Cameron Jordan intercepted a pass at the goal line to put the Saints up two scores.

At 6-2, the Saints have a half-game lead on the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South lead. As well as they have played, the Saints’ recent stretch of games has been an easier portion of their schedule this season. Payton and the Saints still have to play the Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams all on the road, as well as Atlanta and Carolina again at home.

New Orleans looks to be well on its way to getting more than seven wins for the first time since 2013 but have their work cut out for them in the second half of the season.