Defense bears brunt of responsibility for Saints to improve record in 2017

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METAIRIE ¬– The primary responsibility for the New Orleans Saints improving on three consecutive 7-9 finishes clearly rests with the defense.

In each of the last three seasons the Saints scoring offense has ranked ninth or better and the scoring defense has ranked 28th or worst.

The offense had its best scoring season of the three last season when it averaged 29.3 points, second-best in the NFL. The defense was second-to-last, allowing 28.4 points.

With Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, Michael Thomas, Willie Snead, Ted Ginn Jr. and a solid line leading the way, it’s reasonable to expect the offense to again be among the most productive in the NFL. But it’s difficult to expect significant improvement from a unit that annually is among the elite in the NFL.

On defense there’s clearly far greater room for improvement.

“We know what Brees and the offense can do,” defensive end Alex Okafor said, “so obviously we’ve got to improve and that’s been the emphasis.”

Okafor left Arizona to sign with New Orleans as a free agent during the offseason. The Saints hope that he can help improve the pass rush, which is a key to improved pass defense. The team also added a pair of veteran linebackers in free agency — A.J. Klein (Carolina) and Manti Te’o (Los Angeles Chargers) — and spent five of their seven draft choices on defense — No. 1 Marshon Lattimore (cornerback), No. 2 Marcus Williams (safety) Alex Anzalone (linebacker), Trey Hendrickson (defensive end) and Al-Quadin Muhammad (defensive end).

In 2016 the Saints defense ranked last in pass defense, 28th in third-down conversions, 27th in total defense and sacks, 22nd in red-zone touchdowns, 17th in takeaways and 14th in run defense.

If those numbers don’t improve appreciably, neither will the won-lost record.

“Here’s where we’ve got to improve,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said, “when we get in those got-to-have-it situations — third down, two minute, red zone — how do we improve in those areas and hopefully limit points.”

New Orleans’ defense suffered a big loss during the offseason when starting tackle Nick Fairley was lost for the season due to a heart condition that is likely to end his career. The team signed veteran Tony McDaniel to try and mitigate that loss. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who has been productive but injury plagued, is on Injured Reserve and is expected to be released once he recovers from a foot injury.

The defensive improvement that will be necessary for the Saints to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013 will have to come from all areas of the unit.

When the Saints open the regular season Sept. 11 at Minnesota, the starting lineup will be mostly revamped from the one that opened the season finale at Atlanta on Jan. 1. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Craig Robertson and safety Vonn Bell are the strongest candidates to remain as starters.

“We’re not set really at any position,” Allen said.

Jordan, second-year linemen Sheldon Rankins and Daniel Onyemata, Robertson and fellow linebackers Nate Stupar and Hai-oli Kikaha bring some stability to the front seven. The secondary gets back cornerbacks Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams and Sterling Moore from injury, safety Kenny Vaccaro from a season-ending four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs and safety Rafael Bush via free agency.

“I can’t wait to see what we look like on tape with the additions we’ve got,” Breaux said. “You’re got your linebackers coming in and controlling the defense. You’ve got the safeties back there with Vaccaro flying around making plays. Then you’ve got the defensive line putting pressure on guys. I think it’s going to be pretty cool to see.

Breaux was unconcerned about New Orleans using the 27th pick on someone who plays the same position he plays (Lattimore).

“Being ranked 27th we need all the help we can get,” Breaux said.

The most dramatic way that any defense can improve is by creating more turnovers.

“We’re being more ball conscious,” Vaccaro said. “The ball is money. If you can get the ball back to Drew multiple times with a chance to go down the field and score touchdowns your chances of winning go up tremendously.”

In the end it’s the defense’s responsibility to improve the Saints chances of breaking out of their 7-9 funk.

“I don’t think we’re as far off as people think we are,” Okafor said. “We’re going to tweak some things, tighten things up, be a little more disciplined and I think toward the end of the season we’re going to be where we want to be.”

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Les East

Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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