Before the 2017 season, the New Orleans Saints were perceived as a fading team. After winning the franchise’s only Super Bowl in 2010, the Saints kept two key ingredients: quarterback Drew Brees and Head Coach Sean Payton. Together, Brees and Payton formed a prolific offense, consistently one of the league’s best in the last decade.
Regardless, the Saints have struggled to achieve overall success. Four of the team’s past five seasons ended with a 7-9 record, and the Saints have not made it past the divisional playoffs since their 2010 Super Bowl run.
The problem was easy to identify. Despite a potent passing attack led by Brees, the Saints lacked balance: Their running game was significantly less advanced, and they consistently had one of the worst defenses in the league.
There was a perception around the league that Payton and Brees were on the decline, seen by ESPN predicting the Saints to finish 23rd in the league at the start of the season. Their offense supposedly could not make up for the roster’s shortcomings, and with their star quarterback now 38 years old, the Saints were running out of time.
Instead, the Saints have started this season 7-2, punctuating a seven-game winning streak with a 47-10 destruction of the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The roster has seen improved balance, especially on the defensive end and in the running game. The shift has been the product of improved overall play and the acquisition of two key rookies who have changed the outlook in New Orleans for the better.
At the start of the season, many would have been alarmed if they knew Drew Brees would be on pace to throw for fewer than 4,500 yards for the first time since 2009. In reality, Brees has been performing exceptionally well on a smaller volume of passes, on pace for less than 600 attempts for the first time since 2009.
Meanwhile, the Saints’ rushing game has been phenomenal, led by feature back Mark Ingram and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara. Kamara, who was drafted in the third round, has been the perfect complement to the big-bodied Ingram. Ingram and Kamara’s perfect combination of size and speed was on full display this weekend, when the Saints were the first team since 1957 to rush for more than 295 yards and score six touchdowns in a single game.
Kamara has already racked up 790 combined rushing and receiving yards, as well as six touchdowns. The University of Tennessee product’s dynamic speed and ability to get to the outside have given the Saints a new offensive boost.
Another Saints rookie has had a significant role on defense. With the 11th pick in the draft, the Saints addressed their underperforming secondary by drafting Marshon Lattimore from Ohio State University. Lattimore has the ideal size and speed necessary for a cover corner in the modern NFL, and his immediate production cannot be overstated. The rookie is already one of the best corners in the league: He boasts the second-lowest passer rating allowed on throws against him, according to Pro Football Focus.
The addition of a true shutdown corner has given the Saints’ secondary a real boost and has allowed the defensive line, spearheaded by the talented Cameron Jordan, more time to get to the quarterback. Jordan already has seven sacks this season, and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen feels comfortable sending a variety of blitzes to pressure opponents because of more competent coverage behind him.
The cumulative effect of these changes has been dramatic; the Saints’ defense, derided for years, has quickly become one of the NFL’s best. It is a top-10 overall unit, and top five against the pass, according to Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average measurements. That level of production would have been unthinkable to most NFL analysts prior to this season.
Certainly, the Saints cannot expect to win 37-point blowouts every weekend. However, the key ingredients to this seven-game winning streak, which has allowed New Orleans to take control of their division, have been talented rookies performing exceptionally well.
Alvin Kamara’s ability to stretch the field and take pressure off of Brees, as well as Marshon Lattimore’s immediate impact as a shutdown corner, have led to a dramatic turnaround for a team once believed to be running out of time. Now, New Orleans fans view themselves as true Super Bowl contenders. If their rookies keep playing like this, it will be hard to argue with them.
Ryan McCoy is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. “GM’s CORNER” appears in print every other Friday.