For a variety of reasons, 2012 was a forgettable season for the New Orleans Saints. Playing without their head coach, Sean Payton, who had been suspended for the year for his role in “Bountygate,” the Saints stumbled to 7-9 with a historically poor defensive performance.
The Saints allowed more yards than any other team in NFL history, surrendering 7,042 to opposing offenses and prompting a change at defensive coordinator, as Steve Spagnuolo was ousted after just one season in New Orleans.
His replacement? Rob Ryan, a former Patriots assistant and most recently the Cowboys defensive coordinator. Ryan has long preferred a 3-4 defensive system, a stark contract from Spagnuolo’s scheme that was rooted in four-man fronts.
But unlike most transitions from such decidedly different schemes, the Saints have navigated the change easily. In fact, the defense suddenly is playing terrific football, sparkplugged by Ryan’s system and getting strong contributions from such defenders as Cameron Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro (more on them later).
Perhaps no change from 2012 has been more substantial than the return of Payton, a gifted offensive mind and the overseer of the Saints’ lone Super Bowl victory. He’s among the highest-paid coaches in football, and with good reason. The team feeds off his leadership and direction, as is evidenced by its 5-0 start.
For more on the Saints, read our primer below.
Record: 5-0 (1st in NFC South)
Head coach: Sean Payton (7th season; excludes 2012 season)
Offensive coordinator: Pete Carmichael
Defensive coordinator: Rob Ryan
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Drew Brees. As dismal as the 2012 season was, Brees still was brilliant, throwing for nearly 5,200 yards and 43 touchdowns, helping to keep the team at least semi-competitive in most games as the defense endured its massive struggles. Brees, 34, leads the NFL in passing yards again this season and recently set an NFL record with nine straight games of 300 yards passing or more. He has terrific accuracy, a quick release and a diverse set of skill players to whom he loves to distribute the football. Brees has to be considered a top-five quarterback in all of football and presents the biggest challenge the Patriots defense has faced thus far.
2. TE Jimmy Graham. With no Rob Gronkowski yet this season, there’s been no debate about the best tight end in football: It’s Graham. With just one year of college football under his belt, Graham arrived to the NFL as a work-in-progress, but his sheer athleticism (he was a basketball player at the University of Miami) was enough for the Saints to invest a third-round pick in him. The decision has paid off, as Graham is well on his way to another monster season with 593 yards and six touchdowns through just five games. Brees loves to look for Graham in the red zone, where he can stretch the seam and absolutely overwhelm any defender in man-to-man coverage.
3. RB Darren Sproles. Diminutive in stature but not short on talent, Sproles is the best back in a backfield that relies on multiple bodies (veteran Pierre Thomas included). It’s not a stretch to say that Sproles is the best receiving running back in the league, with electric open-field skills to make defenders miss as he runs after the catch. He also is a dangerous punt returner who can take it to the house with just a crevice worth of space. He’s a near impossible matchup for a linebacker in man-to-man coverage and likely will be a focus for the Patriots this week.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. S Kenny Vaccaro. Sure, Vaccaro is a rookie, but he doesn’t play anything like it. He’s an every-snap player for the Saints who has helped fortify a secondary that was dreadful in 2012. He has the range to defend the pass ably, but is a physical downhill defender against the run who has a presence about him that can set the tone for a defense. Many factors have contributed to this defense’s resurgence, but Vaccaro and free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis have been critical to the secondary’s strong start.
2. LB Curtis Lofton. When it comes to range and tackling totals, there aren’t many linebackers who have more of either than Lofton. He’s consistently been among the league’s top tacklers in recent seasons and is well on his way to another season at or near the leaderboard. He has an abundance of speed that allows him to play from sideline-to-sideline and make tackles all around the box. Signed prior to the 2012 season from division rival Atlanta, Lofton is a quarterback for this defense.
3. Edge players Cameron Jordan/Junior Galette. It took a little time for Jordan to hit his stride as a pro, but the former first-rounder out of Cal is a bona fide stud at this juncture of his career, providing edge-setting skills and a pass rush. He’s already had four sacks and he benefits from playing along the same front as Galette, who has transitioned to an outside linebacker alignment in the new 3-4 scheme. Galette is lightning quick, long and has the flexibility to dip a shoulder and turn the corner as a rusher. This duo will be a handful for the Patriots offensive line to deal with.
OTHER NOTES: Marques Colston may not look like your typical slot receiver at 6-foot-3 and some 220 pounds, but he’s among the best in the league. ... Guard Ben Grubbs is widely regarded as one of the top in the league. ... The Saints aren’t overly dedicated to running the ball, relying more heavily on the precision passing game to neutralize an attacking defense. Former first-round pick Mark Ingram hasn’t met expectations after his Heisman career at Alabama. They average just 78.2 yards per game on the ground. ... For really the first time all season, the Saints struggled to defend the deep part of the field in Week 5, as they surrendered two long passes to Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.