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The Saints have quietly become one of the NFL’s best teams again

This year’s Saints team looks awfully familiar to the one that won the Super Bowl in 2009, says retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Week 8 of the NFL season, the conferences are starting to shape up. In the AFC, the three favorites are the Steelers, Chiefs and Patriots. In the NFC, we talk about the Eagles, Cowboys, Seahawks, Rams, Falcons, and Vikings. However, there’s one NFC team quietly going about its business, laying low and winning games.

Don’t look now, but the 4-2 New Orleans Saints are on a four-game win streak and have a legit shot of winning the NFC South and making some noise in the playoffs.

The formula under Sean Payton has been steady. Spend resources on building a Goliath offense and piece together enough parts on defense to make it work. It worked in 2009 when the Saints won the Super Bowl but hasn’t produced much else since. The Saints made the playoffs in 2010, 2011, and 2013, and lost before the conference title games.

Every single nonplayoff season since 2009 the Saints finished 7-9, mostly carried by that offense. In each of those four 7-9 seasons, the Saints scoring offense was in the top 10, while their scoring defense was 28th or worse. If the Saints wanted to contend this season, they needed their defense to pick up the pace.

An offense doing what it always does

Before we explore the improved defense, I can’t discuss the Saints without giving love to the offense. The Saints are fourth in points per game and total yards; third in pass yardage and yards per play.

They are playing efficiently and it starts up front. The offensive line has quietly gotten after opponents as the season has gone on. The Saints drafted Ryan Ramczyk in the first round to play somewhere along the line. He’s started six games: four at left tackle for Terron Armstead and two at right tackle for Zach Strief. He’s a great example of drafting someone who’s technically sound but without much upside, so he’s been able to hop in and play well. The Saints added Larry Warford at right guard and finally found a home for Andrus Peat at left guard, who’s improved his game.

During the four-game win streak, the rushing offense is averaging 147 yards a game, near the top of the league during that stretch. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have seen their combined touches go up by 18 a game since the Saints traded Adrian Peterson, who was never a fit in New Orleans.

Most of those carries go to Ingram. It’s impossible for a run game to function with three running backs or even with two guys each getting half the reps. Now Ingram is able to get 75 percent of the reps, and it’s paying off. Here’s a wonderful example of the run game clicking against the Lions

It’s a G play, so the front side guard is pulling to kick out, which Peat does well. But notice the backside, the reason why this play is successful. The center, Max Unger, cuts the linebacker. Ramczyk knocks down the “will” linebacker, and Ingram does the rest. Beautiful.

The pass blocking has been outstanding as well. Drew Brees has been sacked only five times this season, best in the NFL. Part of that is the offense. According to PFF, Brees is second-fastest to throw the ball. That helps the protection.

Here’s a cool touchdown design from last Sunday.

The route combo starts out as a slant swing, a very basic concept used often. But this isn’t a slant. The Saints draw up a sluggo route, a slant and go! It’s a sweet design, and Brees puts the ball in between the corner and safety for a touchdown:

A defense on the rise

We know the offense will always be legit in New Orleans. But the team needed the defense to pick it up, and it seems to have finally turned the corner.

The Saints invested in the defense through the draft. They start 2015 first-round pick Sheldon Rankins at defensive tackle and high draft picks throughout the secondary, including 2017 first-rounder Marcus Lattimore at cornerback and safety Marcus Williams, a second-round pick.

They also have the criminally underrated Cam Jordan, a first-round pick in 2011, at defensive end. Jordan is a monster, and I’m not sure people know him well enough. Here’s Cam literally sacking a quarterback without touching him:

That’s just one example of his power, and he can beat guys around the edge just as well

The Saints defense has taken the next step over the last four games. They’ve sacked quarterbacks 14 times and forced 10 turnovers. That’s the result of both individual efforts and scheme. The aggressiveness of the defense can be traced to the play of their secondary, and mostly because of rookie cornerback Lattimore.

According to PFF, when targeted, which isn’t often, Lattimore has allowed 12 catches in 22 targets for only 114 total yards. The NFL rating when throwing at him is 50. His cornerback buddy, Ken Crawley, isn’t too shabby himself, allowing a QB rating of only 72 when targeted. Both these guys can play tight man coverage, which allows the defense to stay aggressive.

This is one of many good examples of the Saints secondary allowing a big play up front. It’s third-and-11 and the Saints are bringing pressure. The Dolphins block it up long enough to get a throw off, but no one is open. Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler ends up getting sacked:

Another third down, and again, a turnover forced because the secondary is shutting things down. It’s like the Saints secondary is running the routes for the Lions.

As this defense continues to grow, it’s starting to look an awful lot like 2009 all over again. Look at the stats side by side:

Saints defense 2009 vs. 2017

Category 2009 2017
Category 2009 2017
Points per game 21.3 22.2
Yards per game 357.8 351
Passing YPG 235.6 236.8
Rushing YPG 122.2 114.2
Takeaways per game 2.4 1.7

If the Saints continue to grow on defense, get solid performances, and keep playing well on offense, they have a real chance to win the division and do some playoff damage.

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