Saints looking to improve their pass defense
(Sixth in a series)
METAIRIE – There was little that the New Orleans Saints didn’t do well last season.
They went 13-3, won the NFC South and came within a whisker of going to the Super Bowl.
All of that happened because they had a talented and well-rounded team.
But one area that belied the team’s success, at least statistically speaking, was the pass defense.
The Saints ranked 29th in pass defense, allowing an average of 268.9 yards per game. They made 12 interceptions, allowed 30 touchdown passes and the 14 completions of 40-plus yards that they allowed were tied for second most in the league.
“We talked at the beginning of the offseason program, we’ve got to get better in terms of our pass defense,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said.
The Saints made a trade early last season to try and improve their pass defense when they acquired cornerback Eli Apple from the New York Giants. Apple played the first five games of the season with the Giants, then 10 regular-season games and two playoff games with the Saints.
He had to learn the defense on the fly and the team’s hope is that he will benefit from having had the off-season to learn the defense in greater detail.
The other starting cornerback, Marshon Lattimore, was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year two years ago, but wasn’t as effective last season.
“There’s so much at that position,” coach Sean Payton said. “There’s a lot put on him often times, with a match on the certain receiver, the overall technique, in the things that he’s pretty demanding of himself.
“So he’s competitive. I think that it begins to, it never slows down, but it begins to become a little clearer for those guys. Especially as it pertains to the splits, the formations they’re getting, route combinations. If you’re a corner and you’re defending every route each play, you are going to struggle. You have to understand where the split is and then what routes are going to come with those splits. But I think he is a real smart player.”
Patrick Robinson missed all but three games season after suffering a broken ankle and P.J. Williams stepped in played adequately at nickleback, but rookie Chauncey Gardner-Williams will compete for playing time there as well.
Payton called the return of Robinson “another addition really to our roster based on the injury.”
“We have some depth there which is good and (we have) guys that can play not only inside, but outside, Payton continued.
Safety Marcus Williams had a similar drop-off to Lattimore’s last season after a standout rookie year in 2017.
“(We have) a lot of maturity on the back end now,” Williams said. “The whole defense, to be honest. We’re all molding, coming together and it feels like we’re going to get things going a lot quicker, a lot faster, and hit the ground running (in training camp).”
Defensive backs: Marshon Lattimore (CB), Marcus Williams (S), Vonn Bell (S), Eli Apple (CB), Patrick Robinson (CB), P.J. Williams (CB), Ken Crawley (CB), Chris Banjo (S), Justin Hardee (DB), J.T. Gray (DB), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (DB), Saquon Hampton (S), Marcus Sherels (CB), Chris Campbell (DB), Kayvon Webster (DB), Terrell Williams Jr. (DB).
Departures: Kurt Coleman, Josh Robinson, Rickey Jefferson.
Returning: Lattimore, M. Williams, Bell, Apple, Robinson, P. Williams, Crawley, Banjo, Hardee, Gray, Campbell.
Arrivals: Gardner-Johnson, Hampton, Sherels, Webster, T. Williams.
Projected starters: Lattimore, Apple, M. Williams, Bell
Training camp storyline: All four starters return, but there is strong competition at nickelback and in backup spots. Gardner-Johnson will have an opportunity to play somewhere right away. Special team standouts Banjo and Hardee will be hard to supplant, making the competition at defensive back even more intense, especially with Sherels and Hampton arriving.
Quotable: QB Drew Brees on Lattimore: “There is this obviously athletic ability, this skillset that fits very well with being a great player. But, there’s some smarts, there’s some intellect. There’s some awareness that exists that is a bit unusual for such a young player. … You’ve got to work at it each and every year. And it’s almost like the better you become, the more they’re gunning for you, right. And so, I think Marshon realizes that.”
This is the latest installment of Crescent City Sports’ comprehensive Saints training camp preview. Here is the schedule for the unit-by-unit overviews:
June 27: Offensive line
July 4: Defensive line
July 11: Linebackers
July 18: Secondary (cornerbacks and safeties)
July 25: Special teams (kicker, punter, long snappers)
The Saints are scheduled to report to their Metairie headquarters on Thursday, July 25 and begin training-camp practice the next day.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His 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 and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…