Analysis: New playmakers emerge on Saints defense in Week 1 win

·6 min read

The New Orleans Saints salvaged their season opener to defeat the Atlanta Falcons through impeccable fourth-quarter play. Otherwise, it wasn’t pretty. Taysom Hill, plainly, was the entire offense through three quarters. He ran in 2 of the team’s 4 total first downs in the first half. New Orleans converted a mere 3 of 11 third down attempts prior to the fourth quarter.

Then Jameis Winston briefly entered the injury tent and proceeded to play the best quarter of his career. He amassed 75 passing yards in his first scoring drive. The offense converted 10 passing first downs in the final quarter alone. Winston brought poise under center that had felt absent since Drew Brees retired – doing so with zero turnovers. That calm command was matched in the kicking game with Wil Lutz’s return. After missing a 44-yard attempt early on Sunday afternoon, Lutz recorded a 49-yarder in the third quarter and sealed the victory with 19 seconds left on a 51-yard field goal. The Saints found a way to win, but it wasn’t pretty. Let’s take a deeper look after reviewing the tape:

There are still questions for the Saints offense, pass protection glaringly so, but the biggest change from last year is the surety in weapons to stay mentally tough through adverse periods of play. Especially when it’s happening on both sides of the ball. In contrast to Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota brought the mobile quarterback conundrum to the forefront against the Saints defense. New Orleans didn’t have tape on Mariota, nor did they have to prepare for the zone read offense for 14 seasons. But he’s not the first dual threat they’ve had to chase around, nor will it be the last this season.

Previously known for never allowing 100-yard rushers, the defense had no answer for Cordarrelle Patterson and the additional wrinkles brought by Mariota. The pass rush remains a concern. New Orleans won’t win many games allowing 416 net yards. Still, standout performances in coverage and run defense deserve credit. Let’s dive into how the other levels of the defense fared.

While New Orleans allowed 20 catches for 215 yards, with 13 passing first downs, they didn’t let any go for touchdowns. It’s not too fair to harp on the secondary with the amount of time Mariota had in the pocket. One that looks different in nearly every facet from last season.

Paulson Adebo’s absence gave Bradley Roby the start opposite Marshon Lattimore at cornerback. Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu played their first downs at safety for the Saints. Justin Evans started at slot corner following the C.J. Gardner-Johnson trade. Pete Werner assumed Kwon Alexander’s role in coverage while largely serving as the only answer to Atlanta’s read-option attack. It’s incredible how many new parts had to fit together without much preseason reps as a unit. New Orleans leaned heavily on their nickel packages but ran a considerable amount of base defense – and had at least six defensive backs on the field for 12 plays. Three players stood out through each series: Pete Werner, Justin Evans, and Marcus Maye.

I admittedly paid greater attention to the secondary than nearly any other position group in training camp – but I had hoped for more intriguing development at linebacker daily. Werner was someone I was high on last season; his intelligence and confident technique stuck out with his head constantly on a swivel. Werner’s play gave confidence to move on from Kwon Alexander, and his sophomore jump was high on my offseason wish list. Which made his 6 total appearances at 20 camp practices equal parts concerning and disappointing.

Not only did Werner prove he’s the right choice opposite Demario Davis, but he was arguably the best player on defense. Especially by the numbers – Werner led the team with 13 tackles and a tackle for loss. On the one play he lost his mark in coverage, he accelerated across the field to force a fumble. Mariota gave New Orleans a headache on read-option plays, and Werner was the only real challenger. His quick reads and eye discipline on the quarterback, combined with his agility, put him in the right spot on almost every down. His back-to-back tackles in the fourth quarter were essential stops. Werner’s situational football and mental toughness shone in an otherwise murky defensive showing.

Justin Evans had intriguing film on limited snaps when he signed with the team this offseason. His technique and coachability at multiple positions stood out throughout training camp. In the preseason, his solo tackles and play on third down demanded attention. When Gardner-Johnson was traded, I thought Evans had the traits and physicality to be the most plausible replacement. He was targeted in coverage – but only allowed one catch for 5 yards.

Evans had near-seamless communication with Davis and Werner in zone assignments and forced incompletions with hard-hitting tackling and reactionary athleticism. There were several RPOs where Evans reacted as quickly as the offense and was only stifled by offensive linemen who realized how formidable he was at shedding blocks and making tackles.

More often than not in coverage, Evans took away his receiver as an option. He also displayed solid ability to blitz on a few plays. As sudden as it was, Gardner-Johnson’s departure may have allowed a real playmaker to emerge for the New Orleans secondary in Evans.

The amount of movement pre-snap in the secondary was fascinating. Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu offer versatility and an ability to disguise looks that’s been unmatched in previous safety tandems. While Mathieu deserves honorable mention, Maye brought a layer to New Orleans’ run defense I hadn’t expected. Maye ranked second in team tackles with 8 solo and 1 assist. 8 of his tackles were against quarterback scrambles and rushes. He came up twice with stops on third down – on one of which he forced a fumble recovered by Mathieu. One saved a touchdown.

His tackling technique could use some clean-up, as he could’ve had several more stops with better timing and positioning. His pass interference penalty led to a Falcons touchdown. But Maye’s ability to stop the run is much stronger than anticipated. He displayed an understanding of zone run plays and followed several plays laterally while multiple defenders got lost in traffic. It’s much easier to teach technique to a willing tackler. It’s nearly impossible to do the opposite. And it’s easier said than done replacing two starting safeties with well-rounded players that offer greater upside in versatility. Mathieu’s value perhaps was more obvious. But Maye deserves equal recognition in this new Saints secondary.

While a lot went wrong on both sides of the ball, it was reassuring to see multiple new playmakers emerge on defense for the Saints. Particularly when the shoes seemed near-impossible to fill. Most teams don’t account for losing the caliber of players in Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Williams, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and Kwon Alexander in one offseason. New Orleans proved capable of replacing each one in Sunday’s win.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire