As the (14-3) New Orleans Saints get ready to host the 2019 NFC Championship Game vs their long-time conference rivals the (14-3) Los Angeles Rams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome just over 48 more hours from now, a lot of the national media coverage regarding Sunday’s big game has focused on the offensive side of the football for the Black and Gold.
However, it would be more than fair to say that it was actually the Saints defense that came up big in several of their 13 wins throughout the 2018 NFL Regular Season. That was the case late in the game during their 20-14 NFC Divisional Round victory over the previous (and now former) Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Now with the Rams set to invade the Superdome with their high-powered offensive attack, it very well could be the defense that once again will have to be a difference-maker if the Saints have any hope of winning Sunday’s contest and advancing to Super Bowl LIII (53) in Atlanta.
Indeed, the Saints defense underwent a stunning metamorphosis following their 2018 Season opener back in September, when division rival Tampa Bay figuratively torched them.
The Saints very unexpectedly were outscored by the Buccaneers in a 48-40 “shootout,” and after Week #1 they were ranked 31st overall in the League after allowing a whopping 529 yards worth of total offense.
However, they were able to improve week-by-week steadily, and by the time that their season came to an end, New Orleans found itself with the 14th best defense overall in the entire NFL.
As it turned out, there was one stretch of games beginning with their Week #10 win at Cincinnati and ending with their Week #15 road win at Carolina, where the Saints defense held six straight opponents to 17 or fewer points and only allowed 308 yards or fewer in four of those contests.
In that same span of games, they tallied 24 sacks and forced 12 turnovers — which undoubtedly proved to be the impetus for their eventual 10-game winning streak that ultimately earned them home-field advantage along with the #1 overall Playoff seed in the NFC.
“This is the best defense I’ve been a part of,” Saints 8th-year veteran defensive end Cam Jordan told the Sporting News after the team’s 12-9 win over the Panthers last month. “Game in, game out, first quarter, fourth quarter, I believe in us. If we go into overtime, I believe in us. If it comes down to a crucial play, I believe in us. When we need a turnover, I believe in us.
“I don’t know where that ranks us, but I believe in us.”
The Saints defense was ranked 12th overall at their highest point, and given how awful that they initially looked in that season-opening loss to the Bucs, it was a remarkable achievement that they were able to finish ranked in the top half of the League.
In fact, since Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen took over the reins of the defense from former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan back in November of the 2015 NFL season, the Black and Gold have improved incrementally with each passing year.
New Orleans finished that 2015 Season ranked nearly dead last (31st overall), but since that time has finished ranked 27th overall in 2016, 17th overall in 2017, and 14th in the recently-completed 2018 season. That’s a very notable improvement and the main reason why Allen is likely to remain a future head coaching candidate in the years to come.
However, for now, Allen and the Saints defense will need to come up big once again this weekend. They’re facing a Rams offense that saw the tandem of RB’s Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson combine for 238 yards out of the whopping 273 rushing yards they had tallied by the game’s end last week in their 30-22 Divisional Playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys out in Los Angeles.
The Rams very likely will seek to continue that success in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, even though the Saints only gave up 80.2 rushing yards per game during the 2018 regular season, which was good enough for the 2nd-best overall average in the entire League.
As noted by the folks over at Football Outsiders: the Saints had one of the best D-Lines in all of pro football during the 2018 regular season, as they stuffed 24% of opposing RB’s (3rd best) along with a 9% adjusted stuff rate (4th best).
However, much of that success came from the presence of 3rd-year defensive tackle and emerging superstar Sheldon Rankins, who tore his Achilles tendon last Sunday in the divisional playoff win over Philadelphia and was lost for the remainder of the playoffs and possibly all the way into the early part of the 2019 season.
It’s getting worse for the Saints. Sheldon Rankins is down pic.twitter.com/WnGPyWnI45
— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) January 13, 2019
That’s certainly a concern with a shot at making it to the Super Bowl on the line, but the Saints are relatively confident that they can get the job done in spite of Rankins’ absence, with more-than-capable backup defensive tackles David Onyemata, Tyeler Davison, and undrafted rookie Taylor Stallworth.
As a precautionary measure, the Black and Gold also signed New Iberia, Louisiana native and former Saints defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, who had played in New Orleans previously from 2012-2014.
Whether or not any of those four players can emulate the impact within the interior of the Saints D-Line that Rankins made on a week-to-week basis remains to be seen; although 6th-year veteran linebacker A.J. Klein told Associated Press New Orleans-based NFL writer Brett Martel that they’re more than capable of handling that task.
“They played great,” Klein told Martel in a one-on-one interview after he had watched film of the game on Monday. “Our D-line group is very deep. We have the guys in that room to pick up the slack.”
Nevertheless, Klein admitted that it will be quite a challenge with Rankins not in the lineup against the high-powered attack that the Rams will bring once again to the Superdome.
“He’s a dynamic player on the inside,” Klein said. “His presence on third-down pass rush and stuff will be missed, but I know we have the depth in our defensive line room to get the job done.”
Even with Rankins missing the majority of last Sunday’s game against the Eagles, the Saints defense still managed to limit Philly to only just 49 yards rushing for the entire game.
Naturally the Rams talented tandem of Gurley and Anderson will present a much more difficult challenge for the Black and Gold than Eagles RB’s Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood were able to, yet they remain unfazed; especially given the knowledge that they’re only one more win away from accomplishing their publicly-stated goal of reaching the Super Bowl.
It’s likely that Allen will blitz whenever opportune moments arise and will seek to utilize multiple fronts while also shuffling a variety of different personnel groupings in and out of the line-up, in a concerted effort to try and limit the effectiveness of the Rams offense as much as they possibly can.
That will be a much more difficult task with Rankins gone, but with a berth in Super Bowl LIII at stake, New Orleans doesn’t have many other options outside of the ones already available to them.
The 2018 New Orleans Saints defense was much better than their season stats showed — and they’ll need to be the difference-maker one more time against the Rams this weekend to achieve their ultimate goal.