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Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

By Mike Triplett

What an impressive turnaround for the New Orleans Saints' defense. During their 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, they seemed to correct all the mistakes that plagued them six days earlier at Seattle. They were much more disciplined, especially in pass coverage. They were both physical and fundamentally sound. And at times, they were dominant, with pass-rushers Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan combining for five sacks.

I wrote about the Saints' standout efforts in pass coverage on Tuesday. Here are some more observations after reviewing the tape:

Cameron Jordan
Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette combined to sack Cam Newton five times.
Down goes Newton: Galette got three of the sacks, and he also pressured Newton into an incomplete pass. Jordan got the other two sacks, and he also pressured Newton into two incomplete passes and forced an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty.

Both players were clearly outstanding, but it was also a group effort. Almost every sack came when Newton got stuck deep in the pocket. He couldn't find an open receiver because of the coverage and wasn't able to step up in the pocket because of a solid push up front or because of blitz pressure.

All five sacks came on third downs. The biggest of them all was Galette's sack on the Panthers' first drive, which forced them to settle for a field goal. And fittingly, Galette and Jordan worked together for that one. Galette shot past right tackle Byron Bell with a strong swat of his hands. That forced Newton to step up in the pocket -- but then Jordan came after him from the other side. So Newton ran back toward Galette, who brought him down.

Solo stops: I can't remember the last time I noticed so many impressive solo tackles by the Saints defense. The best was safety Malcolm Jenkins' hit against Newton on a read-option run that knocked him for a 2-yard loss inside the Saints' red zone. Fullback Mike Tolbert was heading out to block Jenkins, but Jenkins made him whiff when he knifed inside. Then Jenkins hit Newton around his knees to flip him up off the ground. That play ultimately led to Carolina settling for another field goal on its second possession.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis also made a terrific tackle against receiver Steve Smith for a 3-yard loss on a receiver screen in the second quarter. Lewis fought off a block attempt by receiver Brandon LaFell and practically shoved LaFell into Smith while making the tackle.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro made two nice open-field tackles. Linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson each made standout solo stops, as well.

Disciplined effort: Last week, the Saints' defense probably had more undisciplined breakdowns at Seattle than they had in the first 11 games combined -- in both pass coverage and run containment. This week was like night and day in both areas.

Galette -- who got burned by a couple run plays at Seattle -- did a very impressive job of staying home on the edge of the line during the Panthers' read-option plays. One time he snuffed out a short pass intended for DeAngelo Williams. Another time, he was so busy spying on Williams that he let Newton scramble for a 6-yard gain -- but it was still evident that he was doing his job.

Other times, the Saints clearly had a spy hovering back behind the line of scrimmage to keep Newton from running free (Lofton at least once and Hawthorne at least twice). Newton still managed to beat a couple blitzes with long scrambles (finishing with six runs for 48 yards). And Carolina's trio of running backs gained 80 yards on 17 carries. But the Saints were solid enough in that area -- much better than some previous nightmares against the Panthers.

Meanwhile, in pass coverage, the Saints repeatedly avoided the Panthers' attempts at pick plays. The best example came when Lewis and Vaccaro switched receivers on the fly near the goal line in the fourth quarter, and Vaccaro prevented Smith from catching a touchdown pass. Lewis also shoved off potential blocks from receivers twice to shut down short pass attempts. And in general, the Saints held up well in coverage throughout the game instead of overreacting to play-action fakes like they did against Seattle.

Conventional D: I'm interested to ask defensive coordinator Rob Ryan if he always planned to use his base defense against Carolina -- or if he decided after the Seattle game that he needed to go back to basics. The Saints actually opened up in a true 3-4 defense, with outside linebackers Galette and Haralson even standing up on the edges on second and third down (something they've rarely done this year). And they spent most of the game in their favored nickel package with three safeties on the field.

They did roll out a four-safety package at least once, on a third-and-6 -- but it didn't turn out well since the Panthers' blockers were able to clear a big hole for Tolbert on a 7-yard run.

Things that didn't work: The Saints' defense wasn't perfect, especially early when they allowed Carolina to convert 4 of its first 5 third-down attempts. Jordan and Haralson hesitated on the first third-down play, clearly leery of the read-option fakes, which allowed LaFell to get wide open for an 11-yard pass. Newton burned a blitz for a 19-yard run on third-and-6. Newton burned a three-man rush by eventually finding Smith open on a third-and-9. And Tolbert ran through that big hole mentioned above. ... The Saints ultimately played bend-but-don't-break on those first two drives, though, so it turned out OK.

The Saints should have pitched a touchdown shutout. But they finally let Carolina score on a fourth-and-17 play in the fourth quarter. The Saints only rushed three, which gave Newton time to scan the field, escape the pocket and find Smith in the end zone while throwing on the run (a hard strike that was easily his best throw of the night). Lewis was covering Smith, and he had decent position at first. But then he took his eyes off Newton once Smith reached the end zone and had his back turned when the ball showed up.

The Saints' special teams also had an ugly moment on Ted Ginn Jr.'s 32-yard punt return in the first quarter. The Panthers set nice blocks on Isa Abdul-Quddus and Travaris Cadet. Then Abdul-Quddus whiffed while trying to come back across and make a tackle. Then it looked like safety Roman Harper may have been blocked in the back while trying to make a tackle (either way, the block cleared him out of the way). Then linebacker Kevin Reddick ran into a blocker and linebacker Ramon Humber took too shallow of an angle. That left punter Thomas Morstead as the last line of defense -- and he did make the tackle, but he did it by wrapping his arm around Ginn's head and drawing a 15-yard penalty.