How the highly-touted Saints secondary came back to earth

METAIRIE, La. -- The rise of the New Orleans Saints’ young secondary was one of the NFL’s most unlikely success stories last year.

Their Week 1 crash-and-burn on Sunday was even more startling.

Obviously they still have plenty of time to turn things around -- much like they did last season, when the Saints allowed more than 1,000 yards of offense during an 0-2 start before ranking second in the NFL in pass defense from Weeks 3-15.

But it sure did take a lot of wind out of their sails when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and aired it out on them, over and over again, in a 48-40 upset on Sunday.

Tampa Bay quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns, including a 58-yarder, a 50-yarder and a 36-yarder.

And everyone played a part in the debacle -- including the NFL’s reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who was victimized more by Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans in one game than he was by the rest of the league combined last season.

Lattimore gave up four passes for 115 yards in coverage against Evans, including the 50-yard TD in the third quarter.

When asked after the game what he personally could have done better, Lattimore replied, “Be a shut-down corner.”

Fair or not, that’s exactly what the Saints were expecting out of him since he lived up to that job description so often last year while routinely shadowing No. 1 receivers.

“I just gotta be there. I’m out on an island, by myself,” Lattimore said of the TD specifically. “I’m good though. It ain’t gonna get me down. Everybody gets beat.”

That’s when Lattimore added the quote that became a headliner for the Saints’ response to Sunday’s loss: “We needed this, we needed to get slapped in our face one good time to see that we’re not on the level we think we’re on. But we’re gonna get better.”

Lattimore struggled at times in training camp, too, when New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas got the better of him in several practices. But Lattimore said he wasn't concerned since he was working on some new techniques -- and he and his teammates insisted that he has an uncanny ability to turn it up on game days. There is little reason to doubt Lattimore can flip the switch, based on his extraordinary rookie season and the combination of speed and length that led him to being the 11th overall pick in the draft out of Ohio State.

He'd better, considering receivers such as the Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry, the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones and the New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. loom on the schedule.

On the flip side, second-year Saints safety Marcus Williams was widely praised as having perhaps the best performance of any player in Saints training camp -- intercepting Drew Brees in three straight practices at one point, which led to Brees making an Ed Reed comparison.

Yet Williams was just as ineffective as the rest of the Saints' defense in the season opener (though it’s unclear if he made poor decisions in coverage or if the scheme dictated that he wasn’t in position to help on deep balls).

Likewise fellow starting cornerback Ken Crawley, who also had a breakout 2017 season, got burned by receiver DeSean Jackson on the 36-yard TD and committed a costly pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter, among other rough moments in coverage Sunday. No one came away clean in this one.

After breaking down replays of about two dozen of the Buccaneers’ most explosive plays -- including a whopping 12 pass plays that gained 15-plus yards -- I came up with the same scientific conclusion as Saints coach Sean Payton when he was asked immediately after the game what didn’t work on defense: “Take your pick."

It started with a blatant assignment error, when the Saints neglected to cover the dynamic Jackson as he screamed wide open down the field for a 58-yard TD on the Buccaneers’ fourth play of the game.

Saints nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson could be seen motioning to his teammates just before the snap as if to try to line them up. But both Robinson and safety Vonn Bell appeared to pass Jackson off to someone else in zone coverage, and nobody picked him up. Williams came sprinting across the field but was far too late to help. It’s unclear who missed the assignment on the play.

However, as Payton confirmed on Monday, most of the plays weren’t caused by assignment breakdowns.

It was cornerbacks getting beat in single coverage. It was an absolute lack of pass rush. It was a failed coaching plan. And it was a sensational performance by Fitzpatrick -- who also destroyed the Saints with his legs by scrambling for a total of 36 yards, including a touchdown and the game-clinching 12-yard run on third-and-11 in the final minutes.

“No. 1, I thought our pass rush plan hurt us at times, relative to there were some pivotal moments where the quarterback was able to flush and do enough damage to convert a third down or gain a first down. … And I felt as the game wore on, our pass rush deteriorated,” Payton said. “We struggled in coverage. Our technique wasn’t great. Our disruption plan at the line of scrimmage with the release patterns [was poor]. One of the goals in this game was to limit the explosives, and we didn’t do that.

“Look, there weren’t a lot of positives.”

The Saints had a four-man rush on the 58-yard TD pass, and they had a delayed six-man blitz on the 50-yarder that didn’t get home in time. They had a three-man rush on a 9-yard TD pass to receiver Chris Godwin and a five-man rush on a 35-yard completion to tight end O.J. Howard.

New Orleans had zero sacks and only two QB hits (it didn’t help that the Saints were penalized for three other roughing-the-passer hits -- at least two of which were questionable but fell under the NFL’s new emphasis on preventing pass rushers from putting their “weight on the quarterback.”

First-team All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan was double-teamed at times and possibly held on one of the explosive plays. But he was also held at bay by a single blockers on several other occasions. And Fitzpatrick got the ball out quickly a number of times.

In other words, “take your pick.”

“You give up 48 points, we didn’t do nothing right,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. “Technique, assignment, alignment, eyes, discipline. It just wasn’t a good performance, wasn’t good enough. And we gotta get it fixed.”

There is still reason for optimism. The Saints’ secondary earned that hype for a reason. Lattimore, Williams and Crawley were a big part of their 2017 turnaround. Robinson, meanwhile, established himself last year as one of the NFL’s best nickel backs while winning a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles.

And as Payton stressed, “It’s oftentimes said that these early weeks of the season your team can improve a lot, and I believe that to be true.”

Especially teams that set the bar as low as New Orleans did in Week 1.