This Sunday afternoon the 4-0 New Orleans Saints come to Chicago boasting one of the most prolific offenses in the entire league. But while quarterback Drew Brees continues to dazzle on a weekly basis and tight end Jimmy Graham has been nearly unstoppable, the Saints’ defense has quietly become one of the league’s best also.
In 2012 the Saints were last in the league in total defense, allowing over 440 yards per game on their way to allowing more than 7,000 yards on the season, nearly a thousand yards more than the next closest team.
New Orleans hired Rob Ryan this offseason to rework their defense, and through four games they’ve allowed just 304.5 yards per game, good enough for sixth best in the league.
While Rob Ryan is mostly viewed as a 3-4 coordinator, he has shown various looks, including four down lineman with three safeties as well as using different 4-3 concepts. He has shown a willingness to adapt to situations and that has benefited his defense greatly.
One of their strengths thus far has been their ability to get after the quarterback. In four games they have 12 sacks, and it all starts up front with their young defensive line.
Pro Football Focus lists the Saints’ Cameron Jordan as their second best 3-4 defense end, grading out with a +15.5. Jordan, a former first round pick, has four sacks and 16 QB hurries and has been just as impressive against the run, grading out with a +6.0. His combination of strength and speed will make things tough for former teammate Jermon Bushrod come Sunday.
Clogging up the middle is John Jenkins who has filled in nicely for the injured Brodrick Bunkley. Jenkins was taken third in April’s draft, and while he’s not flashy, he has done a nice job opening up holes for the would-be tacklers behind him.
Next to Jenkins is second-year man Akiem Hicks. While Hicks does not have the flashiness and ability to get after the quarterback like Jordan, he has been solid at setting the edge in the running game.
Outside linebacker Junior Galete has registered three sacks on the season (including 10 hurries) and has the versatility to be a standup outside linebacker in the 3-4, or he can put his hand on the ground and rush the quarterback from the 4-3 defensive end position. He has struggled against the run, and the Bears would be wise to attack his side of the field with Matt Forte.
Veteran Parys Haralson mans the side opposite of Galete and often shares time with former third-round pick Martez Wilson. Both are average at best but Wilson does a have a solid first step and an ability to rush the passer.
The Saints’ linebacking core is anchored by veterans Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne at the inside linebacker positions. Lofton can struggle at times making his way through traffic but has been a fairly consistent presence in stopping the run game. Hawthorne was a tackling machine during his tenure with the Seahawks but was slowed by injuries last season. He has a good nose for the football but both he and Lofton could struggle if forced to cover Matt Forte or Martellus Bennett.
Due to Lofton and Hawthorne sometimes being liabilities in pass coverage, the Saints like to use a three safety look, allowing one of their safeties to work in a linebacker-like role, who can come up and stop the run or provide coverage on a running back or tight end.
First-round pick Kenny Vaccaro is tied with free safety Malcolm Jenkins for most snaps on defense this season (229), and he has been a perfect fit in Ryan’s defense. According to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, Vaccaro already has lined up as a deep safety, an in-the-box safety, a nickel back in the slot, a cornerback on the outside, an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker in Ryan's various formations.
Just as the Bears had to account for Troy Polamalu at all times a couple weeks ago against the Steelers, Vaccaro plays a similar role and has the ability to cover just about anybody.
Jenkins has been consistent in pass coverage this season and has one interception and one forced fumble to his name thus far. Due to an injury to Roman Harper, Rafael Bush has seen considerable time and has been an adequate replacement.
Cornerback Jabari Greer will likely have the difficult task of going up against Brandon Marshall. Marshall has about a five inch height advantage, but Greer plays very well in zone coverage and has great speed that allows him to matchup with any receiver.
Opposite of Greer is veteran Keenan Lewis. Lewis struggled at times during training camp and the preseason but has been largely effective throughout the early stages of the regular season. He matched up against the speedy Mike Wallace on Monday Night Football and held him to just three catches for 24 yards. Lewis is a physical cornerback and he could share duties with Greer covering Marshall, but his physicality could pose a bigger threat against Alshon Jeffery.
Ryan and his defense have been largely effective this year because they’ve been able to get after the quarterback and have eliminated the big play. Similar to how the Bears approached the Steelers and their 3-4 defense, they can capitalize on short, quick throws if the Saints play off in their coverage.
And if they decide to play tighter and/or man coverage, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett should be able to find some space in the middle of the field.
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