If there’s any one thing that’s become evident about the New Orleans Saints defense so far this season, it’s that no matter how bad they actually might look at certain times, they’re starting to make big plays against their opponents at just the right time.
Despite giving up huge amounts of passing yards once again yesterday afternoon — this time to NFC South Division rivals the Carolina Panthers and their starting QB (and former Saints back-up) Teddy Bridgewater — the Black and Gold defensive unit for a 2nd straight game, made a key stop in the game’s final moments when it mattered the most to pull out another close victory.
3rd year defensive end Marcus Davenport, who has been the target of much criticism by fans and analysts alike for his inability up to this point early in his career to remain healthy and be a consistent contributor to the team’s pass rush, was the latest hero to come through in the clutch; just two weeks removed from the Saints’ previous win (over the Los Angeles Chargers) prior to their Bye Week off.
Saints fans might recall that it was starting #1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore who made the game-saving tackle in overtime to help New Orleans win by a score of 30-27 in that contest.
Yesterday it was Davenport’s turn to fill that hero role, when he made what was the game’s biggest play — as he virtually came flying in and then up through the middle of the line of scrimmage from his right defensive end position — while simultaneously tossing aside Panthers RB Mike Davis before sacking Bridgewater on a critical 3rd-Down-and-10 play from the Saints 39-yard line with 2:53 remaining in the game.
Tough assignment for Mike Davis to block Marcus Davenport one-on-one. Ultimately cost the Panthers the game. pic.twitter.com/5ji83TpbZ8
— Josh Klein (@joshkleinrules) October 25, 2020
Davenport’s stellar effort then left Carolina with a 4th-Down-and-19 from the Saints’ 48-yard line; and Panthers head coach Matt Rhule then opted to allow kicker Joey Slye to attempt a game-tying (and what would have been a NFL all-time record-breaking) 65-yard field goal attempt, instead of going for the 1st Down.
But Slye’s attempt fell just INCHES short of clearing the crossbar of the goal post.
How close was Joey Slye to making that 65-yard FG.
THAT close. pic.twitter.com/lwTMiYOQLx
— Edgar Salmingo, Jr. ✌️ (@PanthersAnalyst) October 25, 2020
The miss allowed the Black and Gold to get possession of the ball back and they subsequently ran out the clock while managing to escape with another close win, this time around by a score of 27-24 while improving to a (4-2) record overall in the win-loss column and perhaps more importantly, (2-0) within their division.
New Orleans still remains a half-game behind the (5-2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who defeated the Las Vegas Raiders in their game yesterday) in the divisional standings.
But by far, the biggest takeaway from yesterday’s narrow win — besides the fact that rumors of starting QB Drew Brees‘ alleged physical decline a few weeks back were greatly exaggerated based on his outstanding play over the course of the last 3 games (all Saints wins, by the way) — is that the defense has managed to come up with key stops in clutch situations with the game on the line, in back-to-back-wins.
And by doing so, perhaps they have shown the rest of the League that any thoughts of a possible decline of this Saints franchise — in particular by their fellow Super Bowl competitors within the NFC — may have been severely premature.
Brees looked like his old self on offense, as he completed 29-of-36 passes for 287 yards and 2 TD’s. He also ran for a 1-yard score on a QB keeper at the goal line.
He led the Saints to a remarkable 12 out of 14 third-down conversions in passing situations, which is a whopping (and obviously impressive) 85.7% completion rate (so much for being “washed up”).
Saints converted 12 of 14 third down possessions. That’s an 85.7 % completion rate. @pfref has single-game third down data going back to 1991. Two teams have ever converted 85+ % of their third downs in a single game (min: 8 attempts)
— Luke Johnson (@ByLukeJohnson) October 25, 2020
Saints superstar RB Alvin Kamara ran 14 times for 83 yards and caught 8 passes for 65 yards (148 total scrimmage yards), and dazzled the few thousands of fans that were allowed to attend the game because of the mandated COVID-19 restrictions with his breath-taking athleticism.
Rookie WR Marquez Callaway had a terrific “break-out” performance in place of absent starters Michael Thomas (ankle, hamstring) and Emmanuel Sanders (COVID-19) in the receiving game, with 8 catches for 75 yards.
Unfortunately, that ended up being before he left the game late with what appeared to be an ankle injury that might force him to now miss time as well.
But the main topic that many Saints fans were talking about after the game, was the continuing bi-polar and schizophrenic play of coordinator Dennis Allen‘s defensive unit over the past month.
Bridgewater played well facing his old team, as he completed 23-of-28 passes for 254 yards and 2 TD’s; including the one play that left Saints fans aghast in absolute horror — when Panthers WR DJ Moore blew right past 4th year safety Marcus Williams in what obviously was yet another blown coverage by the recently-struggling Saints secondary — for an easy score.
— NFL (@NFL) October 25, 2020
After dropping back and reading through his progressions, Bridgewater himself had to be in near-disbelief when he realized Williams wasn’t where he expected him to be originally, and proceeded to hit a wide-open Moore in perfect stride as he ran down the field and essentially walked into the end zone untouched.
The play was indicative of the overall poor performances over the course of the past several weeks in particular, of the players at the Saints safety position, which at this point has to be a frustrating problem for secondary / defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn.
Williams appears to have regressed in the opinion of some, and some disgusted Who Dats were so upset over his not-so-stellar performance yesterday that they began joking about bringing back former starting safety Vonn Bell (who left the team this past off-season in Free Agency to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals).
— Herman’s son (@Rod_Burgundy) October 25, 2020
What are they looking at?
(Wrong answers only) pic.twitter.com/To3AhrvTXy
— Brenden Ertle (@BrendenErtle) October 26, 2020
As a unit, the Saints missed tackles for what seemed like all afternoon; but it was 2nd year safety CJ Gardner-Johnson who appeared to have the most difficulty as he “whiffed” on a couple of attempts to wrap up the ball-carrier.
Yet when it mattered most, the Saints defense still was able somehow to dig deep and play just well enough to earn a victory in the end.
In overall total yardage, the Black and Gold held Carolina to a season-low 283 yards, and they were especially proficient at stopping the Panthers running game (which clearly misses injured All-Pro Christian McCaffrey), as they limited the Carolina offense to only 37 rushing yards.
And as if almost by some divine providence, it somehow was fitting that the often-criticized Davenport was the one who made the biggest play of them all.
Davenport recorded his very 1st sack of the 2020 Season, and the timing couldn’t have been any more perfect as his takedown of his former teammate and friend Bridgewater, allowed the Saints to remain right smack in the thick of things as the better teams / true Playoff contenders throughout the NFC, begin to separate themselves from the proverbial pack.
His effort gives both the team and the fan-base a reason to believe that in spite of their underwhelming performances of late, that they can gradually continue to improve and hopefully in due time, can be playing at their very best by the end of the year.
“Game closer. That’s what he does.”
Cam Jordan crashing Marcus Davenport’s postgame interview after Davenport’s crucial sack late in the game against the Panthers.@UTSAFTBL
(Video Saints/FOX) pic.twitter.com/vlhQRZV39j
— Chase Shannon (@chase_shannon) October 26, 2020
Huge credit to Saints DE Marcus Davenport for his third-down sack that forced Panthers into a near-miss 65-yd FG attempt. As Sean Payton said, “Based on the FG attempt I saw, even if you sacked him two yards less, I think there was a good chance it was going to go in.”
— Mike Triplett (@MikeTriplett) October 25, 2020
“Based on the field goal attempt that I saw, that even if we sacked him with two yards less, there was a good chance that (Carolina’s kick) was going to go in”, Saints head coach Sean Payton said in his post-game press conference..
“Obviously, it was a big play defensively. They got in field goal range and all of a sudden that (sack) put them right on the edge. That (sack) was significant (for us).”
Significant enough to escape with a win, even if the Saints will get a zero-rating in “style points”.
Payton acknowledged that the coaching staff (and Allen and Glenn specifically) has a lot more work to still do, on getting the defense to play well enough to not become a liability, and the main reason that would kill any dreams of a Super Bowl title.
The Saints still have 10 more games on their schedule starting with next week’s now-important intra-conference contest on the road at Soldier Field against fellow NFC rivals the Chicago Bears, to get their issues fixed if they want to earn one of the 7 Playoff seeds in the conference.
New Orleans doesn’t need to have a defense that’s so overwhelmingly great or completely overpowering and dominant, to shut out every opposing offensive attack that they face (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt any) from week-to-week.
This is a good point. I’ve been as hard on them as anyone, but they don’t quit, which matters (that mindset should serve as they continue to seek to fix issues) https://t.co/kKPKzVTdJJ
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) October 25, 2020
It does seem to be an annual trend recently — but “peaking” (if they’re fortunate enough to do so) in early January wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world….
— Barry Hirstius (@BarryHirstius) October 26, 2020
But at the very least they need to play well enough consistently, to give themselves the chance to win games in every potential critical situation that they might face, such as the ones that they have in the past few weeks.
The Saints defense “winning ugly” is becoming pretty beautiful — and at just the right time….
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius