METAIRIE, La. -- The phrase “worst to first” does not sufficiently describe the difference between the New Orleans Saints' pass defense in Weeks 1-2 and Weeks 3-4.
In the first two double-digit losses of the season to Minnesota and New England, the Saints allowed a league-worst 777 passing yards and tied for the league lead with six touchdown passes allowed. Their opponents’ Total QBR was 93.8 -- nearly 20 points higher than any other defense in the NFL.
Then they flipped the switch. The Saints were the only NFL team that didn’t allow a touchdown pass in Weeks 3 or 4 (both runaway wins). And their opponents’ Total QBR over those two games was 6.4 -- nearly 12 points better than any other defense.
But the key for the Saints’ defense going forward is to not get caught up in either extreme.
The Saints benefitted from showing resilience and confidence after those first two games. But they also learned to avoid overconfidence. Players and coaches admitted that the secondary lost its focus a bit after a stellar preseason performance.
“I think our guys got a little taste of humble pie,” Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn said. “Sometimes when you have success in the preseason, a lot of times it doesn’t carry over, the work’s not still there. And our guys kind of got humbled a little bit.
“Along with the coaches, too -- I got myself humbled. I mean, I looked at the preseason and thought things were where they needed to be. But the thing is, we all just buckled down, locked ourselves in the meeting room and made sure that we had everything down pat. And that’s what we’re gonna continue to do. There’s no looking back.”
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said he isn’t sure if overconfidence or a lack of focus was the reason for the Saints’ ugly start.
“But, look, I think if that is the case, then obviously we got what we deserved and hopefully we learned our lesson from that," Allen said. "And we’ll be able to handle whatever success comes our way and understand that success in this league is on a week-to-week basis.
“I think sometimes you need that shock and that wakeup call to let you know where you’re at and what you need to do to get better. And I think our guys really focused on the things that they needed to do for us to improve as a defense.”
The truth obviously lies somewhere in the middle.
Allen said he was “extremely surprised” and disappointed by the way the defense came out and played in Week 1 when it allowed Sam Bradford to throw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in a 29-19 loss at Minnesota. Week 2 wasn’t much better – but at least it was more predictable since the Saints were facing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
The biggest difference has probably been the elimination of the explosive plays that come with coverage breakdowns.
In Weeks 1-2, the Saints allowed 11 passing plays of 24-plus yards and 23 passing plays of 15-plus yards.
In Weeks 34, they allowed one passing play of 24-plus yards and six of 15-plus yards.
Allen said the Saints didn’t make dramatic changes to the scheme – though they did try to move some guys into positions that better suit their skill sets. The most obvious difference in that regard has been second-year cornerback Ken Crawley, who was a healthy inactive the first two weeks before playing extremely well as a starter over the past two weeks. Crawley's interception in the end zone on Miami's opening drive in Week 4 was the signature moment of New Orleans' recovery.
The Saints are also starting two rookies -- cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams -- which naturally leads to growing pains (though Lattimore has shown great promise in man coverage so far).
The Saints have also gotten more consistency from veteran safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others, in the past two weeks. And Glenn said the communication issues in the secondary have cleaned up, as well.
“Over the last two weeks, I think they were more accountable as to what their responsibility was and the things they need to do within the defense to allow us to be successful,” Allen said. “Now what we have to do is continue to build off of two solid performances, because the NFL is about consistency. The NFL’s not about being the roller coaster team that’s up and down. It’s about being a consistent team in all phases.”