- Sean Gardner/Getty
- The New Orleans Saints have won eight games in a row and are now one of the top teams in the NFC.
- After three years as one of the worst defensive teams in football, the Saints have done a turnaround and now rank as a top-5 defense in the NFL.
- Any team with a stout defense, strong run game, and proven quarterback is scary in the postseason.
No team in the NFL is hotter than the New Orleans Saints, who have won eight straight games to move to 8-2 in a second-place tie in the NFC.
The Saints’ latest victory was a thrilling 34-31 overtime win over the Washington Redskins in which they scored 15 points in the final three minutes to tie the game and take it to OT.
And while the Saints rode quarterback Drew Brees for that comeback, the biggest difference between this season and their past three in which they went 7-9 is a stifling defense.
From 2014 to the 2016, the Saints ranked 31st, 32nd, and 31st, respectively, in defensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders. They went through two defensive coordinators and routinely ranked among the worst teams at bringing pressure and defending the pass.
That’s all changed this year. New Orleans ranks fifth overall in defensive DVOA and fourth in pass defense. They’re just 24th in rush defense, but they’ve been effective at sacking opposing quarterbacks, ranking seventh in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate.
The key addition has been rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, taken with the 11th pick in the 2017 draft. Lattimore has two interceptions on the year and has been one of the most effective corners in football this year. After Week 10, Pro Football Focus had him as the top ranked rookie in the NFL. According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, Lattimore has allowed just a 67.6 passer rating to quarterbacks on the left side of the field. When he left Week 11 with an injury, Kirk Cousins went 12-of-16 targeting the left side of the field.
The Saints’ improved defense played an underlying role in their Week 11 comeback vs. Washington. While it was Drew Brees and the offense that completed two efficient drives for late scores, the Saints also forced Washington into a three-and-out late in the fourth quarter to set up a second late score and then stopped Washington’s offense again in overtime.
An improved defense has taken the Saints to the next level. Since trading Adrian Peterson, they’ve had the NFL’s most efficient run game in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara who are averaging 6.3 and 9.3 yards per carry, respectively. Since October, the Saints have run the ball 234 times and passed the ball 230, a nearly even 50-50 split in play-calling. Compare this to last year, when the Saints threw the ball over 200 more times than then they ran it.
But as seen on Sunday, when the Saints fall behind, their fall-back option is Drew Brees, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. For the first time in years, Brees isn’t the No. 1 option for the Saints, and their defense is allowing them to run the ball more with leads, taking pressure off Brees.
The Saints will be tested in coming weeks as they faced the 7-3 Los Angeles Rams and 7-3 Carolina Panthers in a huge division game. But the Saints have turned in victories in every type of form – come-from-behind wins, ground-based attacks – and can now lean on both sides of the football to get the job done. A team with a stout defense, efficient run game, and proven quarterback is a scary recipe come January.