Saints defense has continued to struggle after offseason overhaul

Brandon Browner has struggled at cornerback for the Saints. Getty Images/Wesley Hitt

METAIRIE, La. – Three games into the 2015 season, the New Orleans Saints ’ defensive rankings are almost identical to last year.

They’re 29th in the NFL in yards allowed (397.0 per game), tied for 26th in points allowed (28.0 per game) and 30th in overall efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

There have been some signs of promise with the young unit, including the play of newcomers like cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and Damian Swann, pass rusher Hau'oli Kikaha and middle linebacker Stephone Anthony. But the Saints’ 0-3 record is the most disheartening sign.

"Look, it's like our team, when you're sitting here 0-3, you don't look at a lot of things positively,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. “Otherwise you'd be sugarcoating it."

It's still too early to properly evaluate the direction of the Saints' defense since they've been playing without three of their projected starters all season due to injury -- cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Jairus Byrd and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, all of whom are expected back soon. But surely the Saints were hoping for a quicker transformation.

New Orleans made a number of changes after last year's defensive flop, from personnel to scheme. Payton kept defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. But he demanded a more simplified scheme to help cut down on assignment and alignment errors and brought in veteran assistant Dennis Allen to help clean up some of those same issues.

Payton dismissed a sideline shouting match between him and Ryan after a 12-men-on-the-field penalty on Sunday as “just the emotion of the game.” But he said Sunday night that it “absolutely” bothers him that those types of pre-snap and alignment issues are still happening in Week 3. Payton was equally ticked when it happened on special teams a week earlier.

What irked Payton even more this past Sunday was how the Saints let Panthers tight end Greg Olsen have such a big day in New Orleans’ 27-22 loss after they had identified him as Carolina’s biggest threat in the passing game.

The Saints were willing to sacrifice some pass rush on Sunday in hopes of containing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the pocket. But where they really failed was in containing Olsen, who caught eight passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns.

“The access Olsen has into the defense is something that’s discouraging. We’ve gotta be better at that,” said Payton, who explained that the Saints’ plan was to play more zone defense with a four-man rush to keep Newton and the zone-read offense contained.

But Payton said, “I would have liked to have seen us disrupt the tight end more off the line of scrimmage. You don’t have to be in man to do that.”

Olsen’s biggest play was a 52-yard deep ball when he got behind Saints cornerback Brandon Browner for a 52-yard pass. And I wrote more about Browner's struggles on Sunday here.

But Olsen was an equal-opportunity nemesis for the Saints. According to Pro Football Focus, Olsen was targeted 10 times against six different defenders in primary coverage.

The lack of a pass rush (only one sack by Kikaha) wasn’t quite as concerning since the Saints weren’t going all-out to rush Newton. But Payton said he still would have preferred more pressure.

“It’s one thing to play zone defense, rush four. Yet you still don’t want the time (Newton) had. So that would be obvious,” Payton said.

The Saints’ four sacks and three takeaways this season are both tied for 21st in the NFL.

“It’s tough when you have a dual threat guy like Cam,” said Kikaha, who said it lingers in the back of your mind whether you should go “all-out” to rush him. “You’ve gotta make sure that he’s not scrambling everywhere. And you also have to be concerned with how much time he has to throw the ball without leaving our coverage guys out to dry.”

The Saints will need to find a way to be more disruptive on Sunday night, especially since they’ll have the home crowd noise in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome behind them and because they’ll be facing Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Brandon Weeden. They need to make things uncomfortable for the veteran backup in his second start in place of injured starter Tony Romo.