The Sins of the New Orleans Saints

The Saints spent this offseason checking off nearly every box on the Contender Checklist. Despite bumping up against the cap, they did enough we’ll-deal-with-this-later shuffling to lure Jairus Byrd in free agency. They followed that by trading up for Oregon State touchdown machine Brandin Cooks. With New Orleans already returning almost every piece of its top-10 units on each side of the ball, these seemed like the sort of moves that would push the team over the top. There were some (me) who saw them as the best in the NFC. A quarter of the way in, that looks like a call some (I) would like to take back.

Before Sunday night, you could still rationalize the Saints’ struggles. They were two or three plays away from being 3-0, you could tell yourself, and they’d played two of their first three games away from the Superdome. But that stance is a little tougher to maintain after what happened in Dallas. A year ago, the Saints embarrassed the Cowboys on Sunday night. And despite how good New Orleans is at home, I’m not sure the setting alone should account for a 53-point swing. The Saints have glaring problems.

Where Has the Rob Ryan Magic Gone?

New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys

I imagine Sunday was pretty tough on Rob Ryan. After taking the annual scapegoat bullet in Dallas two seasons ago, Ryan arrived in New Orleans last season and proceeded to seemingly rehabilitate what was an all-time awful defense. In 2012, the Saints had given up an impossible number of passing yards — 4,681, actually, on 8.1 yards per attempt. Every quarterback they played looked like Peyton Manning. That’s what made 2013 so surprising.

The Saints weren’t just passable under Ryan as defensive coordinator in 2013 — they were really good. New Orleans finished 10th in defensive DVOA and sixth against the pass. Through four games this year, those rankings are 32nd and 30th, respectively. So what’s changed?

Let’s start with the safeties. Coming into this season, the Saints’ safety duo appeared to be the best part of the roster. Kenny Vaccaro, taken 15th overall last year, had a great rookie campaign. Sheldon Richardson deserved his Defensive Rookie of the Year trophy, but I don’t think anyone would have stormed the gates if it’d gone to Vaccaro. A big, physical, versatile safety, Vaccaro seemed like the perfect complement to the ground-covering Byrd, who was brought in on a six-year, $54 million deal in March. Anyone who thought that pairing would define the Saints defense was right. It just hasn’t been in the way you’d have hoped.

New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys

Vaccaro has been beyond disappointing. It’s been an adventure for him in coverage this year, especially when he’s been left playing man-to-man in the middle of the field. Jason Witten had his way more than once on Sunday, and he was only the latest to take advantage of Vaccaro. Last year, it felt like Vaccaro was often at his best while playing in zone coverage, in the flat, or near the line of scrimmage — two areas in which his tackling was more important than his cover skills.

That may be something the Saints want to get back to. Last year, New Orleans could use Vaccaro as a de facto linebacker because Rafael Bush and Malcolm Jenkins were in at safety for a majority of plays. Early on this year, Ryan chose to go with a more traditional approach — three corners instead of three safeties — and it hasn’t exactly panned out. Patrick Robinson, the Saints’ first-round pick in 2010, started the season as the cornerback opposite Keenan Lewis. After a nightmare opener against Julio Jones, Robinson has more or less been confined to the bench. His replacement, Corey White, hasn’t fared much better.

The real issue facing the New Orleans pass defense is that, on the off chance its outside corners are playing well, no one else is. Along with Vaccaro’s middle-of-the-field issues, the Saints’ inside linebackers have also been a liability in coverage. In his two games replacing the injured David Hawthorne, career special-teams player Ramon Humber has looked lost.

It doesn’t help that Byrd isn’t playing like the guy he was in Buffalo. There’s a chance he’s still getting up to speed, both in learning the scheme and with regard to his health (he underwent back surgery this summer). But from his coverage to the awful run support he provided against the Cowboys, he hasn’t played like someone who got paid Earl Thomas money this offseason.

Can the Offense Be Enough?

The Saints offense may have looked shaky against the Cowboys, but the truth is, things are in much better shape on that side of the ball. New Orleans ranked first in DVOA through three games, and a few weeks from now, the preseason notions about the Cowboys defense will have faded enough for everyone to realize Dallas is actually playing OK. Still, Dallas ain’t Seattle. And on a fast track indoors, New Orleans should have been able to do a lot more damage than it did Sunday.

There are a few hallmarks of past Saints offenses that have been largely missing from this season’s first four games. Last season, the Saints finished with 67 plays of at least 20 yards — third-most of any team in football. This season, they’re on pace for 36. More Kenny Stills, who hauled in a 46-yard reception against the Cowboys, should help in that area. After missing the season opener, Stills has slowly increased his time on the field each week and played more than two-thirds of the snaps against Dallas.

New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys

It’s also an area in which Cooks could help. His 5-foot-10 frame had people tapping him for a lot of Darren Sproles–type work, but Cooks is a viable downfield threat, with a 40-yard speed of 4.3, who did a ton of damage outside the numbers in college. On Sunday, Cooks averaged just 6.2 yards on his five receptions.

No matter who they’re aimed at, Drew Brees would probably be well served by taking more shots downfield. Brees’s average air yards per attempt has fallen from 8.02 last season to 7.40 this year. The ranking for those two figures is actually pretty similar (22nd in the league through four games this year, compared to 20th last year), but part of the stability is because teams are pushing the ball vertically more this season. The Saints’ current 7.40 average would have ranked 29th last year.

This is also where not having Sproles comes into play. New Orleans turned plenty of 6-yard angle routes into huge gains when Sproles was around. They’re clearly trying to make Cooks the YAC monster Sproles was. But if what we’ve seen this year is any indication, Sproles’s success with the Saints was as much about him being freaking incredible as it was about how Sean Payton used him.

It’s fair to say Brees isn’t the quarterback he was three years ago, but whatever he’s lost probably won’t be enough to drag the Saints out of the top 10 offensively. His slight decline and a 35-year-old arm may exacerbate the struggles Brees and the Saints offense faced outdoors last year, but they’ll be at home enough the rest of the season to still be a dangerous group. It helps that they’re running the ball like they are,1 and that should continue, especially when Mark Ingram gets back.

Four games in, the Saints have shown they likely aren’t the 13-3 type of team that some thought they could be. Luckily for them, they might not have to be. The NFC South still seems very much up for grabs. Atlanta’s offense is playing well, even with the injuries up front, but Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings tore apart the Falcons defense, on the ground and through the air. The Panthers have looked nothing like the Panthers on defense the past two weeks. And one win doesn’t erase how badly the Bucs have played.

The Saints’ status as a preseason favorite was based, at least in part, on how much better they were playing defense. Even if they do start to figure things out, they aren’t likely to be anywhere near what many (hi again) predicted this summer. The chance to have a top-10 unit has vanished into the French Quarter on a Friday night. The question now is whether they can piece something together that takes Ryan’s group from abhorrent to slightly below average. If they can’t, the outlook might be a lot bleaker than simply missing the playoffs.

As of right now, the Saints are already more than $16 million over next year’s cap. That’s what happens when you defer bonuses and restructure contracts. When the Saints made their play for Byrd, it was even more of a win-now move than it seemed at the time. The New Orleans roster is littered with high-priced veterans — Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, and Curtis Lofton — who may be hard to keep. When the Saints made their big push this offseason, they likely did it thinking what so many of us thought: that it would be enough to make them a team capable of competing for a Super Bowl. If that gamble doesn’t work out, it could be a long time before they ever get close again.

This article has been updated to correct the name of Malcolm Jenkins.

Filed Under: NFL, New Orleans Saints, Rob Ryan, Sean Payton, Kenny Vaccaro, Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, Brandin Cooks

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays