As bad as the New Orleans Saints defense was Monday night, there were signs from this much-maligned unit that enough of a turnaround might be on the horizon.
From the opening series, the Saints on defense looked different. Sure, there were the missed tackles that have been an unpopular trademark for this 2012 unit. Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles were able to move the ball into New Orleans territory and sustain a 14-play drive. But there was something new as well.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up the aggressiveness for the Saints defense in Monday’s 28-13 win over the Eagles, and the front four produced three sacks on Philadelphia’s first drive.
The Saints' inability to stop opposing teams from rushing the football crept up later in the first quarter as the Eagles gained 47 yards on the ground in three plays and drove into the Saints’ red zone.
Aggressive pressure from both sides of the defensive line forced a quick throw from Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick and Patrick Robinson picked off a pass meant for Brent Celek and returned the ball 99 yards for a touchdown.
Both of the Eagles' first two drives landed in New Orleans territory, and Philadelphia gained 86 yards on 19 plays. But Robinson’s pick-six had the Saints on the board with a seven-point lead, and Drew Brees hadn’t done any damage yet.
The 3-5 New Orleans defense still gave up 447 yards of total offense to the Eagles and set a new record of mediocrity as the only team to allow eight teams in a row to trample through its defense for 400 yards or more in a game.
The Saints haven’t been able to slow anyone down this year. A porous run defense and poor tackling still plague the team.
But, New Orleans has won three of its last four games, and on Monday, the Saints defense sacked Vick seven times and pressured him into multiple mistakes. The opportunistic defense forced two Philadelphia turnovers and wreaked havoc on Vick’s timing.
Cameron Jordan led the team by sacking Vick three times. Will Smith got to him twice with Martez Wilson and Broderick Bunkley each notching a sack of their own.
Dialing up pressure is something New Orleans hasn’t been great at in 2012. Coming into Monday, the team had just 13 sacks. Adding more than 50 percent to their season total in just one game shows that the front four is beginning to grasp Spagnuolo’s scheme. They’re beginning to buy in.
The newfound pass rush couldn’t have come at a better time.
With a 3-5 record and eight games to play, New Orleans likely needs seven wins to have a decent shot at the playoffs. That means there’s very little room for error.
The same can be said for the Saints' Week 12 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, who have given up nine sacks in their two losses this year.
Young quarterbacks like Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman (Week 15) and Carolina’s Cam Newton (Week 17) can also be rattled by constantly being hammered by an aggressive pass rush—the same kind of pass rush the Saints showed Monday.
There are definite scenarios in the second half of the season for New Orleans to go 7-1 and make a playoff push. But this same aggressive front four has to show up and produce. This same opportunistic defense that took the ball away twice Monday must continue taking the ball away from opponents.
Then, Brees just has to do what everyone in the NFL universe knows he can do, captain this Saints offense and pick apart every defense it sees.
The Saints are not out of the playoff hunt, not by a long shot. After an 0-4 start, that sounds ludicrous, but it’s the absolute truth.