Film study: Reviewing Saints' defense

METAIRIE, La. -- As Sean Payton said, the New Orleans Saints had "by far" their best defensive performance of the season Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

Until they somehow managed to have their worst breakdown of the season in a stunning 24-23 loss.

The Saints had season highs with two takeaways and three sacks. They were dominant against the run. They held the Lions to 101 yards and three points in the first half and a total of 10 points through 56 minutes.

Then it was all undone by Golden Tate's 73-yard touchdown catch with 3:38 remaining and Corey Fuller's 5-yard touchdown catch with 1:48 remaining.

Here are some observations after reviewing the tape:

Tate's touchdown: The Saints were actually in a prevent-style defense. But they clearly had a breakdown in their fundamentals when Tate caught a 9-yard pass from Matthew Stafford on third-and-14 that was slightly underthrown under some decent pressure. The most egregious error was cornerback Corey White's decision to jump up in the air and try to intercept the pass -- especially considering there wasn't another defender within 15 yards behind White. Tate had better position on the ball, and he caught it and took off down the field before White got his feet re-set.

That left safety Kenny Vaccaro needing to make a stop in the open field, which would have been difficult. But Vaccaro probably should have at least cut off Tate from the sideline and forced him to run inside where there were more possible tacklers. Instead, Tate cut outside and had clear sailing while cornerback Keenan Lewis also took an inside angle and safety Rafael Bush and linebacker Curtis Lofton were too far away to catch up.

Fuller's touchdown: The Saints had an assignment breakdown on this one. Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste decided to let Fuller run free to the back of the end zone, but nobody else picked up the coverage. Perhaps it was Bush's job to do that, but Bush instead went to help White cover Tate. It's unclear what the Saints should have done differently, but Payton suggested that there was more to it than just Jean-Baptiste's coverage. ...It also didn't help that the Saints' four-man rush didn't get any pressure on Stafford on the third-and-goal play.

The interceptions: Lewis' interception in the first quarter was a terrific effort. He was originally covering Fuller, but he let him go down the field and shot over to dive in front of Tate instead.

Vaccaro then followed with an interception near the end zone in the fourth quarter. It was a gift, since the ball bounced off the hands of tight end Jordan Thompson, but Vaccaro showed great awareness and aggressiveness to snag it out of the air and return it 45 yards across midfield.

Improved pass rush: The Saints had three sacks (by linebackers Junior Galette and Parys Haralson and cornerback White on a zone blitz). They also consistently pressured Stafford into incomplete passes while having by far their best pass-rushing performance of the season. Galette continued to show some nice flashes, while ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks both got more pressure than they had previously. And the Saints did it mostly with just a four-man rush.

By my count the Saints only blitzed on five pass plays (only once in the first three quarters), plus two blitzes on run plays. They did mix things up quite a bit, though. The Saints used their amoeba formation (with everyone standing up at the line of scrimmage) at least seven times. They used that zone blitz (with Galette dropping in coverage and two defensive backs blitzing) at least three times. And they moved Jordan inside to defensive tackle at least four times.

Lofton, Lewis outstanding: Linebacker Curtis Lofton and Lewis continued to be the Saints' most consistent performers on defense. Lofton finished with 16 tackles and was repeatedly thumping guys in the open field. Lewis was rarely targeted and didn't give up anything noteworthy.

Ball decent: Safety Marcus Ball played his first 21 snaps of the season on defense and flashed a few times, including a stuff for minus-2 yards on a run blitz and good penetration when Reggie Bush lost four yards. He did miss at least one open-field tackle, though.

Some negatives: White also got burned by Tate off the line for a 19-yard catch on a third-and-16 play. ...Rookie cornerback Brian Dixon had a rough game, giving up passes of 26 yards, 21 yards, 18 yards and a questionable pass interference penalty for 31 yards. His coverage wasn't that bad on some of those plays, but he's obviously got to be prepared to keep getting picked on. ...There were still too many missed tackles, at least six that really stood out in addition to a few cases of taking a poor angle. ...Add the late-hit penalty against Jordan in the fourth quarter to the list of judgment calls that may have been irking Payton. Jordan hit Stafford about one second after he threw the ball, so it could have been a no-call, but it was close.