Saints defense ready to assume larger role in the team’s identity
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints have been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL since 2006.
The team has maintained a consistent identity that was its hallmark throughout that time.
Sean Payton’s offense and Drew Brees’ execution of it gave the Saints a chance in any game and in most seasons it gave them a legitimate shot at reaching the playoffs, which they have done nine times in 15 seasons.
Payton and Brees were so good that the worst they ever did was go 7-9, which they did five times, even when the Saints weren’t a complete team.
But whenever the running game, defense and special teams effectively complemented the passing game, the Saints rolled.
They won a Super Bowl after the 2009 season, played in the NFC Championship Game in two other seasons and enter the 2021 season having won four consecutive NFC South championships.
But Brees has retired as the quarterback of the offense, the leader of the team and the face of the franchise.
That doesn’t mean the Saints inevitably will be less successful, less productive in the passing game or on offense in general, though all of that is conceivable.
It does mean that their identity will be different.
Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael have tailored the offense to Jameis Winston’s strengths and to continue accentuating Alvin Kamara’s.
The Saints also have very good special teams and a defense that blossomed during the second half of last season and looked outstanding while mostly starters were on the field for two games this preseason.
So the identity of the 2021 Saints is being molded as the team heads into the opener against Green Bay on Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla.
“The defense is going to have to be a strength more so in past years,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
The Saints should be encouraged by the success they had while playing without Brees for parts of nine games during the last two seasons.
They went 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater playing quarterback while Brees recovered from in-season thumb surgery in 2019.
They went 3-1 with Taysom Hill playing quarterback while Brees recuperated from lung and rib injuries last season.
In each of those games Payton made accommodations for its fill-in quarterbacks and the Saints excelled in complimentary football.
But it’s one thing to modify your identity for a few games while secure in the knowledge that Brees will be returning in a month or so. It’s another to turn the page on a Hall of Fame career and alter your permanent identity.
“We know our offense is going to take care of the football,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “They’re going to take the football down the field. And our special teams are going to perform. But put the game on us. That’s our mindset.”
Davis is entering his fourth season since signing with the Saints as a free agent. The evolution of his perception of the Saints defense provides some insight into the evolution of the team’s identity.
After beginning his career with offensively challenged Jets and Browns teams, Davis saw an exciting opportunity awaiting him in New Orleans when he hit the free-agent market in 2018.
“From afar I just saw this really dynamic offense putting up 30, 40 points a game all the time like it was nothing,” Davis said. “Some of those games they weren’t winning. I was intrigued by that for years, from the time I came into the league in 2012.”
Davis’ initial goal for himself and his new defense was fairly modest.
“I thought I could go in and help them to at least get a few mores stops defensively,” Davis said. “That was my mentality of coming in, but then on my arrival I realized how well the defense was coached and the type of players they had and my mentality instantly went to, I think we can be one of the top defenses in the league if not the best.”
Dennis Allen’s defense has been evolving around a core consisting of Jordan, Davis, safety Malcolm Jenkins, tackle David Onyemata, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safeties Marcus Williams and CJ Gardner-Johnson.
The loss of a half dozen key members of last year’s defense in off-season transactions created some openings, but the Saints have a few newcomers and a few ascending youngsters poised to succeed those who have left.
“We did a good job of retaining – except for a few guys – the core guys that dictate the culture of our defense,” Davis said. “When you have that many people carry over, the culture is what’s most important for the guys that come in.”
Davis said he’s impressed when he hears newcomers praise the “different level of intensity here.”
“That’s our culture. That’s how we work,” he said. “When you have young guys come in they have to buy into the program. There are enough guys at every position that understand the culture, that understand the amount of work that we put in and how serious we take it. We have to keep raising the standard.”
They have consistently raised their defensive standard during the run of division titles. Their NFL ranking in total defense was 17th in 2017, 14th in 2018, 11th in 2019 and fourth in 2020.
“You say you want to be the best defense, but every defense is saying that,” Davis said. “But, one, you’ve got to have a real opportunity to do it, right? You’ve got to have the players in the room and you’ve got to have coaches that put them in the best position. Then you have to have the confidence to be able to do it and we can have that confidence because we’ve been able to do it.
“We have enough to rely on to be able to say, we’re right there. That’s our goal – to be the best. Why, when you have that opportunity, wouldn’t you chase that? The only way you’re going to get it is if you go for it. You may or may not, but we’re going to go for it and we need to. That’s what our mentality is now, which is a little different than when I came in looking for one or two more stops.”
When the Saints take the field for the season opener against Green Bay on Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville, one of the most visible examples of the team’s changing identity will come during the pre-game huddle.
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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…