As the Saints (7-2) proved in their 27-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers this past Sunday, they can count on their defense and special teams units to do the heavy lifting when needed. New Orleans snagged two interceptions and recovered two fumbled punts while rallying back from an early 10-0 deficit -- even though Brees left at halftime.
It was the same thing last year, when Brees missed five games with a thumb injury.
Everyone remembers Teddy Bridgewater going 5-0 as the starter in Brees’ absence. But Bridgewater threw for 240 yards or fewer in three of those games -- including a 12-10 win over Dallas, a 13-6 win at Jacksonville and a 33-27 win at Seattle that started out with a punt return for a touchdown and fumble return for a TD in the first half.
“You only gotta go prove it if you don't believe it yourself. For me, I don't feel like we have to do anything different,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said when asked if the defense takes pride in opportunities to prove the Saints should be known for more than offense.
Although Jenkins wasn’t around last year, he did spend five years in New Orleans from 2009 to 2013 when the defense barely even got second billing behind Brees, coach Sean Payton and the Saints’ dynamic offense.
“Every time we step on the field, we want to compete and do our best as a defense. We want to be disruptive, we want to take the ball away and give our team the best chance we can to win. That is no different with or without Drew Brees on the field,” Jenkins said. “The biggest thing for us is to not go out and try to overcompensate or try to go outside of ourselves to make up something."
The Saints’ defense got off to a shaky start this season, committing way too many pass-interference penalties in the first few weeks, allowing way too many deep passes from Weeks 3-8 and struggling in the red zone for two months.
But they have steadily improved -- culminating with two dominant performances in their 38-3 win at Tampa Bay in Week 9 and last Sunday's victory over San Francisco. And now, quietly, they are the NFL’s No. 4 defense in yards allowed (308.2 per game).
“[We want to] put our stamp on things regardless,” said safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who had a big game against San Francisco with eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, three QB hits and a pass defensed. “We don’t worry about [what the Saints offense is doing]. We’re gonna go out and there and stop ‘em and give the ball back to Drew, Jameis, Taysom, whoever’s back there.
“We’re trying to be a great defense, not trying to be good, not trying to be average. We’re getting better. We’re just getting started.”
This has been building for four years as the Saints have reinvented themselves as a well-rounded team that doesn’t just rely on 5,000-plus passing yards per season. Beginning with Week 3 of the 2017 season (after a lousy start in Weeks 1-2), the Saints defense has ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Their run defense has been even more dominant. The Saints haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 52 straight games, including the playoffs -- which just became the longest streak of any team in the Super Bowl era, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
During that 52-game stretch, the Saints have allowed 87.2 rushing yards per game, No. 1 in the NFL by a wide margin (the Baltimore Ravens rank second at 95.6).
“When you’re trying to win enough games to give yourself the best seed, you’re gonna have to play well in all three areas,” Payton said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s a team. It’s not just offense or defense. We’re trying to, No. 1, play a complementary game.”
The Saints are getting better by the week at accomplishing that goal. They have cleaned up two of their most confounding problems.
The first was communication and assignment errors that led to receivers breaking free in zone coverages. The Saints allowed a jarring seven passes of 48-plus yards during a five-game stretch from Weeks 3-8 (with a bye in the middle). They haven’t allowed a pass longer than 27 yards over the past two games.
The second was their red zone and goal-line defense. In the first eight weeks, they ranked last in the NFL by allowing opponents to score TDs on 83.3% of their trips in the red zone and 100% of their 13 trips inside the 10-yard line.
In the past two weeks, opponents are 1-for-4 in the red zone and 0-for-2 inside the 10, including a goal-line stand at Tampa Bay that started on the 1-yard line.
“You want to be ascending. There’s no time to peak in this game, we gotta get better and better,” said linebacker Demario Davis, a first-team All-Pro last year who has been a key to New Orleans’ defensive rise since he arrived as a free-agent steal in 2018.
Davis also had a dominant performance against San Francisco with 12 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss, two QB hits and a pass defensed.
The rise of underrated players such as defensive end Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle David Onyemata has also been huge. Defensive end Marcus Davenport has also made a big impact since returning from injuries in Week 5. And defensive coordinator Dennis Allen acknowledged cornerback Marshon Lattimore's recent surge has been invaluable after he battled some inconsistency early.
"I don't think it's any secret that when he's playing at the top of his game, we're playing that much better defensively," Allen said.
Another of the Saints’ stars, DE Cameron Jordan, has been solid this season -- but not quite making his usual impact while stuck on a total of 2.5 sacks. Perhaps he will have an outburst against his favorite opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, on Sunday.
Jordan had four sacks the last time these two teams met last year. And he has sacked Matt Ryan a total of 18 times, which is a record for the most by any player against any QB since sacks became a stat in 1982, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“All of our players have improved as the weeks have gone on,” Allen said. “Certainly we didn't start the season the way we wanted to. We've really focused on the process and trying to get better every week.
"We don't stop at the quarter pole of the horse race and see where we're at. We focus on, ‘How am I gonna get better this day, the next day?’ We kind of leave the evaluations to everyone else to figure out and have their opinions on where we're at and what we're doing.”