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The Saints have a new identity — and it’s their defense

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Just in time for the end of the Drew Brees era, the Saints built a defense that can take over as the backbone of the franchise.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago that the Achilles’ heel for the New Orleans Saints was their awful defense. The team was bottom five in the NFL in points allowed in 2014, 2015, and 2016. That dragged an elite offense to a 7-9 record three straight years.

When the defense finally shaped up to become a middle-of-the-pack unit, the Saints were a playoff team again.

Now — for the first time since Drew Brees signed with the Saints in 2006 — defense is the reason why New Orleans is a contender.

The post-Brees era isn’t far off the horizon, but now it doesn’t look so scary for the Saints. The young group of defensive talent stands to carry the team for the foreseeable future.

The Saints’ defense has core talent in the most important spots

There are a few positions that are valued higher than others in the NFL. Quarterback is the clear top priority for any franchise; on defense, it’s cornerbacks and defensive ends. Not too far behind in an increasingly pass-heavy NFL is safety.

In Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Davenport, and Marcus Williams, the Saints have three 23-year-old players who are already among the best in the NFL at their position.

Lattimore’s recent success isn’t brand new. He was a Pro Bowler and Defensive Rookie of the Year 2017, although he couldn’t quite recreate that success in year two. His 2019 season didn’t get off to a strong start either.

The cornerback gave up a touchdown in the back of the end zone to DeAndre Hopkins in the season opener, was beat on a deep ball by Brandin Cooks and stiff-armed into oblivion by Cooper Kupp in Week 2, and gave up 152 yards to a combination of Seahawks receivers the week after that.

Then he locked in and had the best three-game stretch of his still very young career.

Lattimore shut down Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, and DJ Chark in games against the Cowboys, Buccaneers, and Jaguars. Evans didn’t have a single reception, and neither Cooper nor Chark topped 50 receiving yards.

That Week 6 win over Jacksonville was the Saints’ most impressive defensive performance so far this season. The Jaguars only managed to score six points and Lattimore intercepted Rookie of the Year frontrunner Gardner Minshew.

An elite cornerback who can lock down a receiver is a defense changer. Having one allows the rest of the secondary to focus its efforts on stopping every other receiver, and gives pass rushers a little more time to sack quarterbacks. And just as a player like Lattimore helps the defensive line, a dominant pass rush helps cornerbacks not have to cover too long.

Second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport is on track to be that perfect complement for Lattimore. Drafted for his lofty potential, Davenport was expected to be a project, but he’s already turning that promise into production. Only two players recorded more quarterback hits in the first six weeks of the season than Davenport.

While the duo of Lattimore and Davenport are building blocks in premium spots, they’re not the only reason the Saints are making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

Williams is arguably playing better than both of them. No player on the New Orleans defense has a higher grade on Pro Football Focus, and the safety already has two interceptions. Although he’s still best remembered for his whiff on Stefon Diggs in a playoff loss to the Vikings, Williams has quietly put that mistake behind him to become one of the NFL’s best safeties.

There are plenty of others playing key roles in New Orleans’ defensive success.

Four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan is on his way to another double-digit sack season. Former Giants first-round cornerback Eli Apple has settled in as a reliable starter in New Orleans. 24-year-old safety Vonn Bell has been Swiss Army knife in the secondary. Fourth-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has improved each season, though he’s still not all the way back to form after tearing his Achilles in January.

That group helped the Saints’ defense find its groove late in the 2018 season and into the postseason. But it’s the trio of ascending players in their early 20s who will make the New Orleans defense a force for years to come.

The prolific Saints offense as we know it is just about gone

Teddy Bridgewater has been just about everything the Saints could’ve realistically hoped for in his time as Brees’ replacement. In his starts, he’s completed over 70 percent of his passes, avoided big mistakes, and posted a passer rating in the triple digits. All of those are Brees-esque statistics.

Best of all, Bridgewater is undefeated in his fill-in duties.

It might be enough to make the 26-year-old former first-round pick the future starter in New Orleans. Brees turns 41 in January and his thumb injury — which required surgery to repair — adds another reason to believe his time in the NFL is coming to an end soon. Bridgewater’s audition to be the one who fills that eventual void has been an impressive one.

The only significant difference without Brees — and it’s a big one — is that the Saints simply aren’t scoring as much. Every season between 2011 and 2018, New Orleans has averaged at least 25 points per game. So far in 2019, the Saints are scoring 21.3 points per game, which is 18th-best in the NFL.

While Bridgewater has a completion percentage that resembles Brees’, the latter gets more bang for his buck. Brees has averaged at least 8.1 yards per attempt in each of the last three seasons (8.5 in his limited time in 2019). Bridgewater is picking up just 6.9 yards per attempt and the Saints are below the league average in total offense.

When Brees returns, the Saints may regain their high-scoring form. Maybe. Brees struggled down the stretch in 2018 and the list of quarterbacks who have found success after 40 is exceedingly brief.

Either way, he’s nearing the end of his NFL career. Perhaps Bridgewater, an efficient but not-so-explosive quarterback, will take over. No matter who it is, though, the Saints can’t expect to get anything close to the production of Brees — the NFL’s all-time leading passer — out of his successor.

Running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas offer a pair of young, dangerous weapons who will make sure the offense doesn’t bottom out. Still, the Saints’ 13-year streak of finishing top eight in total offense is probably over.

Luckily for the Saints, they have a defense that can lead the way when Brees is gone.