The larger portion of appreciation for the Saints’ turnaround this year is due to the defense. Yep. You read that correctly. The defense has been more than just a positive in 2017, it’s been the backbone of the team’s confidence. Since week 2 the Saints are #2 in the league in total defense. That’s after starting 31st in points allowed and 32nd in yards allowed. All told, the unit sits comfortably among the middle of the pack at 15th in total defense and are top 10 in points allowed. Which some fans might think is disappointing, but those folks obviously haven’t been around much the last three seasons.
There’s no doubt that there’s a lot to be happy about right now. This unit is playing with swag, passion, and is having a ton of fun doing it. Here are my defensive highlights through week 9 as they hope to continue building their photo album through the final 8 games.
Cam Jordan is already only a half sack away from tying last year’s total of 7.5. Beyond that, he’s only 5.5 sacks away from matching his carer high of 12.5 in 2013. Through 8 games Cam has had himself quite the time forcing two fumbles and adding a pick-6 off of a batted ball for good measure. He’s been an absolute beast and is, somehow, still flying under the radar. PFF has him ranked as the #5 EDGE player in the league. Jordan has also ranked highly in run stopping beyond his pass rushing ability. As we’ve know for quite a while, he’s a complete package on the defensive line and it should continue throughout the season,
Alex Okafor is probably our best free agent add on the defense. We were hoping for him to be an effective pass rusher off the edge opposite Cam Jordan, but he’s been a hell of a presence in run defense as well. Okafor has notched 3.5 sacks this year and is well on his way to matching his career high of 8. PFF also has him ranked as the #2 run defender of 4-3 defensive ends. He’s been a great addition and a truly valuable asset to this defense. His selfless play has also helped us to keep opposing offensive lines on their toes as Okafor steadily rotates with Hau’oli Kikaha (3 sacks) and rookie Trey Hendrickson (2 sacks).
A.J. Klein is my runner up for FA addition of the year so far. He had a bit of a rocky start in black and gold but has seemed to find his rhythm as of late. He leads the Saints with 41 total tackles and has done well in pass protection despite dropped interceptions with four PBUs.He also added a sack to his resume against the Dolphins in week 4. Klein hasn’t missed a single defensive snap so far this year, one of few players on the team with that record. Leading the defense as captain and being a primary conduit of what has been magnificent communication among the unit are some nice intangibles to keep in mind as you look over his PFF grade. Though he’s been responsible for missing quick a few tackles, he’s the quarterback for that defense that’s making so many plays game after game.
Ken Crawley is probably out on New Era Field practicing right now. How else could you possibly explain the rebound he’s had from 2016? Crawley (or Crawdad as my friend Dylan calls him) has been stellar playing opposite the DROTY candidate. He had his lone interception against the Dolphins but has also added 7 PBUs. He’s definitely eased the pain of loosing Delvin Breaux for the year. After not being active the first two weeks, he’s done nothing but make good on his time since starting in Carolina.
Marshon Lattimore has been one of the most exciting players to watch on the Saints defense in years. He’s prototypical, quick, strong, and apparently really competitive given the evidence we saw in last weekend’s Bucs game. All things that the Saints defense has been starved of for some time. Everything you need to know about how amazing this guy is can be found in Tyler’s article How Marshon Lattimore Became a Top 5 Cornerback in Under 10 Weeks. A read I recommend. He’s recorded 2 interceptions, one of which a pick-6, a forced fumble, 8 PBUs and has gotten so far under one QB-WR duo that one lost a game and the other lost 12k.He’s been the highest rated rookie by PFF and they also shared a post showing that throwing to the dirt yields a better passer rating than what Lattimore allows. There’s brilliance taking place in New Orleans.
Kenny Vaccaro won’t be on the field against the Bills but he’s been all over it this year. After trade rumors, benching, and criticism Kenny V did the only thing he could and brushed it all off on his way to completely revolutionizing his game. Okay, maybe “revolutionizing” is a strong word but he’s a safety that’s excelling as a nickel back and playing in the box. He’s been a renaissance man this year and it’s maximized our playmaking abillity on defense. With Vaccaro at nickel, it allows for Lattimore, Crawley, Vonn Bell, and Marcus Williams to all be on the field with him. That’s a lot of ballhawking potential. Vaccaro’s game isn’t limited to his coverage though, while he has brought in his career high in interceptions already this season with 3, he’s also got a fumble recovery for a TD, a sack and 4 tackles for a loss. He’s been a pest in both the backfield and downfield for teams since the team’s 180 after week 2. Vacaro is my defensive MVP for the first half of the season and I can’t wait until he’s rested and back on that field when we take on Washington.
Honorable Mentions: Sheldon Rankins, Craig Robertson, Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell