A defense that could keep the New Orleans Saints’ high-powered offense from having to win games by itself has been consistently missing the past few seasons, but that seems to have finally changed for coach Sean Payton’s club.
That improvement hasn’t kept the offense from continuing to put on an impressive show.
Drew Brees(notes) and the league’s top-ranked offense look to lead the Saints to their first 6-0 start since 1991 on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, who nearly signed the NFL’s top-rated passer three years ago.
Brees may have never even arrived in New Orleans had Miami been more aggressive in pursuing him after the 2005 season, when he had major reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder. The Saints and Dolphins - then coached by Nick Saban - showed the most interest, and Miami was said to be his preferred destination.
The amount of the contract offered by the Dolphins isn’t known, but New Orleans came through with a six-year, $60 million deal. Miami, meanwhile, is on its seventh starting quarterback since then.
“All due respect to the Miami organization and coach Saban,” Brees said Wednesday, “but I didn’t feel like they believed in me and my ability to come back from that injury like the Saints did.”
The Saints have had a top-five offense in each of their three season with Brees under center, but after having the 11th-ranked defense in 2006, they’ve had one of the league’s 10 worst the past two seasons.
That didn’t keep Brees from nearly setting the NFL single-season record for passing yards in 2008, but it did keep the Saints out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
New Orleans has shored up its defense under first-year coordinator Gregg Williams and free agent safety Darren Sharper(notes), who leads the NFL with five interceptions - two of which he’s taken back for touchdowns. The Saints have forced a league-best 15 turnovers and are allowing 301.2 yards per game to rank ninth in the NFL.
“It makes us a lot better by going against our offense in practice,” Sharper said. “It makes us both better because you have the top offense in the league going against one of the better defenses.”
After New Orleans held both Buffalo and the New York Jets below 250 yards during weeks 3 and 4, it was the offense that stole the show again following the bye. Brees threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns in a 48-27 win over the New York Giants and their top-rated defense last Sunday at the Superdome.
While Brees has helped pace the Saints’ passing game, perhaps the biggest reason for their first 5-0 start since 1993 has been the rushing attack. Behind the trio of Pierre Thomas(notes), Mike Bell(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes), New Orleans is averaging 159.6 yards on the ground - 60.0 more per game than last season.
With the rejuvenated defense and running game, no longer are the Saints being referred to as a “finesse” team.
“I think we have had that reputation for the last few years,” said Brees, whose 118.4 passer rating is on pace to be the second-best in NFL history. “We’re trying to get rid of that label because I don’t think it applies.”
Perhaps if Brees had ended up in Miami, the Dolphins (2-3) would have turned into a pass-first team. But right now they’re doing just fine emphasizing their running game.
Miami got off to an 0-3 start but has won its past two behind an average of 200.5 yards on the ground behind its wildcat offense that gives direct snaps to Ronnie Brown(notes) and Ricky Williams(notes).
The Dolphins’ 177.0 rushing yards per game lead the league, but against the Jets on Oct. 12 it was quarterback Chad Henne(notes) who helped make the difference. Miami ran for 151 yards, but Henne threw for 241 and two fourth-quarter touchdowns in leading a 31-27 comeback win.
Henne is 2-0 as the starter since taking over for the injured Chad Pennington(notes), but as long as the wildcat is working - the Dolphins are averaging 7.1 yards per play when Brown or Williams take the snap - he’s happy to share time.
“The wildcat is just a great tribute to our offense,” Henne said. “You see how many yards we get out there when we run it.”
The Dolphins rank third in rushing defense (76.4) and New Orleans is fifth (83.4), meaning whichever team can stop the other on the ground could walk away the winner - something the Saints have never done in three visits to Miami.
Despite New Orleans’ improved ground game, the Dolphins know the Saints’ offense still hinges on Brees.
“The quarterback drives the offense,” said linebacker Akin Ayodele(notes), whose brother Remi is a defensive tackle for New Orleans. “And looking at Drew, everywhere he’s been, he’s pretty much done a great job in being efficient and taking control.”
Miami won the most recent meeting with New Orleans 21-6 on Oct. 30, 2005, at the Superdome. Brees lost all three games against the Dolphins while with San Diego.