After studying the New Orleans Saints' offense and all of the challenges that it will bring to the Superdome on Sunday, it’s time to look at coordinator Dennis Allen’s defense and how it'll look to attack Carson Wentz.
When you look solely at the numbers, this is one of the bottom-third units in the NFL. Part of that is talent-based but I do think that it is a bit underrated as a group. Remember that this team typically plays with a lead, meaning teams are forced to throw the ball more often than not. The passing numbers are up as the Saints rank 28th in completion percentage and 29th in opposing quarterback rating. On the flip side, the running numbers are down as the Saints rank first in yards per game and fifth in yards per carry.
Schematically, the Saints run a 4-3 defense, but they play mostly with five defensive backs in the nickel subpackage. We’ll get into the secondary personnel later in this piece, but first I want to look at this defensive line. It’s a very active group, and the Saints have a couple of players who I view as being blue-chip talents as former first-round picks in defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who was forced to play a lot of defensive end last year, and defensive end Cameron Jordan.
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Both Rankins and Jordan win with power and speed, but typically the former. They both have high motors, play with an edge, and use their hands well at the point of attack. The Saints traded up in April’s draft to select a player who they think will fit that mold in the future in former Texas-San Antonio defensive end Marcus Davenport.
Davenport won't play this weekend due to a toe injury, but he helps paint the picture of the type of player they seem to like. Alex Okafor, starting in Davenport’s stead, has a similar skill set. The Saints like tall, strong, physical edge setters who can collapse the pocket with power and leverage, forcing the quarterback to step up into the teeth of the rush. That’s where players like Rankins come into play, but he’s not the only defensive tackle on the Saints' roster.
David Onyemata, a rotational player who started for them last year, is a highly competitive kid with length who is both stout at the point of attack and rangy enough to make plays from sideline to sideline. Starting nose tackle Tyeler Davison was a guy I liked coming out of Fresno State a few years back. He’s very stout but also has deceptive lateral movement and burst off the ball. Overall, this is a tough defensive line capable of both stopping the run and impacting the quarterback at a high level.
The Saints are not a big blitzing team. When they do send extra pressure, it’s typically from their one exotic subpackage – a 3-3-5 look.
The Saints roll out this 3-3-5 look (three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs) a handful of times per game. They don’t always send the house here because they’re perfectly fine rushing three and creating one-on-one matchups for guys like Rankins and Jordan up front. If they do send pressure, expect to see veteran linebacker Demario Davis or athletic linebacker Alex Anzalone coming after Wentz.
The three starters for the Saints in their base package are Davis, former Notre Dame star Manti Te’o, and solid SAM ‘backer AJ Klein. When they go to sub, that’s when Anzalone comes onto the field.
Anzalone, a second-year player from the University of Florida, is an athletic kid who can play sideline to sideline. A better zone coverage player than man, he plays in all of their subpackages and they like to try and keep him clean and let him run to the football. Anzalone, who grew up in nearby Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, is a guy they’d like to build that defense around in the coming years.
Now let’s get to the secondary, where the standout player is second-year man Marcus Lattimore. While he’s not blanketing receivers and traveling all around the field quite as much as he was in his rookie season, he is still one of the most physically gifted corners in the NFL.
Lattimore may or may not travel with Alshon Jeffery on Sunday. In fact, that’s one of the things I’ll be watching for very early on, but whomever he lines up against will have to try and create early separation and keep Lattimore’s hands off him early in the down. He has been attacked vertically at times this season as well.
Personnel-wise across the rest of the secondary, the team traded for former Giants first-round pick Eli Apple to start on the outside across from Lattimore, so expect to see him on Sunday. Strong safety Vonn Bell is used in a lot of different ways, including over the tight end in coverage, while free safety Marcus Williams spends most of his time in the post as a center fielder. Williams is a bit of a liability against the run, so if the Eagles can control the clock and stay true to the rushing attack that could be a way to gain an edge.
Now let’s talk about their subpackages. P.J. Williams is the "regular" nickel corner, playing in the slot in place of the injured Patrick Robinson, who went on Injured Reserve earlier this season. The team, like many, has two nickel packages though. When they go to their "big nickel" package with three safeties, that’s when we’ll see former Eagle Kurt Coleman.
The Eagles can’t be expected to keep the Saints off the scoreboard, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that this offense can move the ball on this defense. I’m excited to see the plan that Doug Pederson and company have drawn up to attack this unit on Sunday afternoon.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.