METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' biggest problem during their 3-2 start? Too many of their superstar players have looked mortal.
Receiver Michael Thomas has been sidelined since Week 1 because of an ankle injury and disciplinary issue. And quarterback Drew Brees has obviously missed his go-to guy while battling some inconsistency.
But it’s the same story on the defensive side of the ball, where the Saints need to figure out how to unlock cornerback Marshon Lattimore and defensive end Cameron Jordan, among others, coming out of their Week 6 bye.
Lattimore and Jordan haven’t been bad, necessarily. They just haven’t been the game-changers we've been accustomed to seeing during New Orleans’ three straight NFC South title runs from 2017-19.
One thing that will help? Getting their wingmen back. Defensive end Marcus Davenport returned from elbow and toe injuries in Week 5, while cornerback Janoris Jenkins returned to practice Wednesday after missing the past two games because of a shoulder injury.
Here’s a look at where Lattimore and Jordan have fallen short so far.
Pro Football Focus has been particularly unkind to Lattimore, grading him 103rd out of 121 qualifying cornerbacks. NFL’s Next Gen Stats has also attributed 14 completions to Lattimore as the “nearest defender” for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
Such grades are always tough since the assignments aren’t clear in zone coverage. But Lattimore, who was the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year, was the primary defender on a 49-yard pass to the Los Angeles Chargers’ Jalen Guyton in Week 5 and a 48-yard pass to the Green Bay Packers’ Allen Lazard in Week 3, among others.
“I don’t really pay attention to [analytical grades], because they don’t really know what’s going on. The fans, really, nobody really knows what’s going on. But I feel like I definitely can play better, you know, I gotta make more plays,” said Lattimore, who has zero interceptions and just one pass defensed in four games played -- though he did make one of the best plays of his career with a game-clinching fourth-down tackle of Chargers receiver Mike Williams in overtime.
“It’s just small things for me -- and the secondary, period,” said Lattimore, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. “It’s just small things becoming big things. And we just gotta eliminate those big plays because it starts with everything before [the play], like eyes and communication.”
Saints coach Sean Payton agreed, citing communication as the No. 1 issue for a Saints secondary that has now allowed 15 touchdown passes (tied for the most in the NFL on a per-game basis) and 10 completions of at least 29 yards (third-most on a per-game basis).
“It’s hard for someone to be that open in our league. So what are we doing? What aren’t we communicating? And how can we be more efficient when we play a certain defense?” Payton said after the Saints allowed both the 49-yarder and a wide-open 64-yard TD pass on a busted coverage against the Chargers.
“It's one thing if a player's catching a contested ball. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about a player being wide open,” Payton said. “We've gotta look at that as coaches.”
ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen agreed that he is seeing some obvious blown assignments and coverage issues for the Saints -- who also lead the NFL with eight defensive pass interference penalties of 19-plus yards.
“I think that’s part of a collective issue right now with Lattimore and the entire secondary,” Bowen said. “I’ve always said Marshon Lattimore is one of my favorite corners in the league. That’s a guy I would love to coach, that’s a guy I would want in my secondary because of his high-level traits, his competitive nature, his natural instincts to find the football. But when you’re playing in a secondary that has communication issues, has assignment issues and has responsibility issues within the scheme, everyone’s gonna suffer.
“So I don’t think Marshon Lattimore has declining skills or anything like that.”
One example Bowen mentioned was the backside cornerback not coming over the top to help Lattimore on one of those deep balls.
“Those are training camp things,” Bowen said. “Those are things you have to have built into your toolbox when you’re playing in the secondary. The communication pre-snap. It’s not clean enough.”
Lattimore, meanwhile, has always admitted that he is more comfortable playing man coverage, as he did at Ohio State, than he is playing zone coverage.
“But I can’t play man all the time,” Lattimore acknowledged. “[Offenses] know how to exploit Cover 1. But for me, I guard a man, you know he’s not catching it on me in Cover 1. But it is what it is. It’s the defense we play. So I have to buy in and do my job as best I can.”
PFF has actually been generous to Jordan, grading him as the No. 10 edge rusher in the NFL so far this year (largely because he is ranked No. 3 in run defense). And his pass rush “win rate” of 15.4%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, is right where it has been over the past three years.
But his QB pressure numbers have been significantly down across the board.
Jordan has just 1.5 sacks, 10 total pressures and six hurries through five games, according to Next Gen. That puts him on pace for five sacks, 32 pressures and 19 hurries – down from his averages of 13.5, 50 and 37 over the past three years.
Davenport’s absence hasn’t helped -- though Hendrickson has done a nice job filling in with a team-high 4.5 sacks this year while defenses have paid heavy attention to Jordan.
“Shoot, double-teams, triple-teams, sometimes shift the whole O-line over to him, wide receiver chips,” Davenport said of the attention Jordan has received. “It's just one of those things where he's a beast. So you've got to try to stop him any way that you can."
Double-teams are nothing new to Jordan, however, since he has been either first- or second-team All-Pro in each of the past three years. But according to Next Gen Stats, he has only one “win” against a double-team this year after he had 37 of them in the past three seasons combined.
Bowen said he hasn’t seen Jordan look like he is slowing down or struggling to get through blocks in his 10th NFL season. He said the return of a healthy Davenport should help quite a bit -- as would a boost from the interior pass rush.
“I love Cam Jordan. I think he’s your classic power defensive end -- a guy who can win with speed-to-power, a guy who can win with counter moves, and someone who’s a three-down player. He’s not just a pass-rusher, he’s a complete defensive end,” Bowen said. “But he’s not as bendy as like a Myles Garrett. He doesn’t have the same amount of juice when he closes to the quarterback. He needs someone opposite him.
“Hendrickson is a solid football player, but he’s not a high-level pass-rusher. They drafted Marcus Davenport to be that guy.”
It’s notable that Jordan had season highs of four pressures and two hurries, according to Next Gen, in Week 5 against the Chargers when Davenport and Hendrickson were both in the lineup.
“If I’m getting double-teamed, we should have somebody else getting singles. And I think Trey Hendrickson’s done a phenomenal job winning his singles,” said Jordan -- who hopefully suggested that maybe the script will start to flip now.
“I think the world is starting to take notice that he’s coming off the edge and playing a high level of football, which now he may get a couple nudges,” Jordan said of Hendrickson. “Which means I gotta win my singles. It’s gonna be a beautiful thing; it all comes full circle.”