The New Orleans Saints spent much of their offseason seeking to shore up their defense for the 2008 season. The idea was to make it effective enough to allow the Saints to protect a lead once they got it. QB Drew Brees had to throw too many passes last year. A better defense would take the head off the QB.
Well, if you look at Brees' numbers — which are ridiculous through six games, frankly — you would think that the defense is just as bad as last year.
Well, the pass defense could still use some work. But the run defense starting to show its teeth. Consider the following tidbits, as reported by the New Orleans Saints' PR staff:
The Saints allowed opponents an average of 102.9 rushing yards per game in 2007, the 13th best figure in the NFL in opponent rushing yards per game. This was a significant improvement over the 2006 season, when they surrendered 128.9 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 23rd in the league. In 2008 they are ranked 14th through six games, giving up 103.3 yards per game.
A stout run defense vs. Minnesota, Oct. 6, surrendered a season-low 44 yards rushing on 26 carries. This was the second consecutive game where they gave up less than 100 yards. This was the first time the Saints held an opponent to under two yards per carry since Oct. 14, 2001 at Carolina. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson gained only 32 yards on 21 carries on Monday, an average of 1.52 yards per carry. That was the lowest for any player with 20 or more carries in an NFL game since Buffalo's Travis Henry had 21 carries for 26 yards against Jacksonville in 2003.
The Saints continued their success against some of the top rushing attacks in the NFL when they held the Oakland Raiders to 85 yards rushing on 25 carries in their 34-3 win on Oct. 12. Most impressively, the Saints held Oakland's three-headed monster of Michael Bush, Justin Fargas and Darren McFadden to 74 yards on 21 carries, giving up only 3.5 yards per carry.
To give you another quick glimpse, here's a look at the rushing yards allowed each week by the Saints, followed by that team's leading rusher:
Tampa Bay, 146 yards (Earnest Graham, 91)
Washington, 149 yards (Clinton Portis, 96)
Denver, 105 yards (Selvin Young, 65)
San Francisco, 91 yards (Frank Gore, 82)
Minnesota, 44 yards (Adrian Peterson, 32)
Oakland, 85 yards (Justin Fargas, 35)
So, let's get this straight – the defense that some "experts" think is one of the worst in the NFL actually hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season? And that includes games against Portis, Gore and Peterson?
I've written in this space before that all the Saints defense has to be this season is average to be a playoff contender. Officially, they're 19th in the NFL in total defense, so they're closing in. And defenses that stop the run effectively are able to make their opponents one dimensional, thus making scheming the pass game a little easier.
But the real question is why is this happening? After six weeks of the season, I see three reasons:
Jonathan Vilma: He doesn't get a great deal of attention, but his numbers don't lie. Vilma has 65 tackles in six games, meaning that he's averaging double digits every time he straps on his helmet. He has flourished in the middle defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs' 4-3 scheme and validated the trade that brought him to New Orleans. Vilma's athleticism is undeniable. He can make plays from sideline to sideline. But he's also an intelligent linebacker who makes the defensive calls on the field. I have to believe that part of the reason the Saints are being burned fewer times, especially the past few weeks, is because Vilma is getting his teammates into the right defense. No offense to last year's middle linebacker, Mark Simoneau, but Vilma is simply better.
An improved pass rush: This might seem an odd reason, but think about it for a minute. The addition of Bobby McCray has made his pass rush a bit more versatile. McCray is the immediate backup to both Will Smith and Charles Grant, and the trio has eight of the Saints' 13 sacks. McCray can even be used as an inside rusher on passing downs. But why does an improved pass rush translate to a better run defense? Well, one thing Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin told me two years ago has stuck with me. In 2006 when the Bucs went 4-12, they had no pass rush to speak of and their defense sank out of the Top 10 for the first time. The injury to Simeon Rice explained the pass rush deficiency. But no one could explain the drop in run defense. Kiffin told me that a solid pass rush that creates pressure and sacks has a trickle-down effect to the run defense. The rush actually can limit an offensive coordinator's choice of play calls, especially draw plays, because of the rush. Coordinators then become more conservative, which allows the defense to tighten their noose and limit running lanes. It's no surprise the Bucs' run defense has improved as their pass rush has improved the past two years. Same goes for the Saints.
Health and depth: The Saints have registered two great weeks of run defense without rookie Sedrick Ellis, counting on veteran Brian Young and hybrid tackle Antwan Lake to rotate into his spot. Rookie Jo-Lonn Dunbar filled in nicely as a starter for a couple of game for WLB Scott Shanle. Troy Evans logged some playing time for SLB Scott Fujita. When players in the front seven have gone down, their backups have stepped in and played well. And when Ellis returns, the front seven will be as healthy as it has been in weeks.
Two weeks remain until the bye for the Saints. They should probably be better than their 3-3 record, but at least they're not worse. And their run defense, whether you believe it or not, is a reason why.