Breaking down what Tyrann Mathieu did with Chiefs and Marcus Maye did with Jets to see how they’ll fit with Saints

The Saints are going to have a more dynamic secondary.

Whether or not Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu are better than the previous combination of Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins will take time to determine. That debate may never get settled if Maye and Mathieu play well but reaching a consensus doesn’t really matter. We know that the new duo will provide the coaching staff with more options and a better ability to disguise coverages, which is what Dennis Allen wants from his defense.

The Saints will likely restructure a lot of the things they like to do on defense to support the talents of their two safeties. What worked for Williams probably isn’t going to work as well for these guys, but we do have enough evidence from Allen’s tenure to at least get a feel for the things he likes to do and see how these guys can blend into some of the pre-existing fabric.

Last year, New Orleans’ primary coverage was Cover 1, which is a man coverage with a single-high safety. The team used Cover 4 the second-most often, with Cover 3 and Cover 2 also eclipsing 100 snaps (read about all of these coverages and how they work in our Glossary series). Many things that Maye and Mathieu do should fit into that picture, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some changes in the ratios.

Mathieu should be able to pick up whatever the Saints want to do quickly. The Chiefs like to mix up their coverages, much like the Saints, which had the safety operating out of many schemes. Last year, Kansas City used Cover 2 as its primary coverage, with Cover 1 right behind it. But there was also a good amount of Cover 3, Cover 4 and Cover 6.

Mathieu lined up as the deep safety at times in all of those looks, including as the centerfielder on about 50 snaps of Cover 1, which required him to cover from sideline to sideline. That skill is vital because Allen wants his safeties to be able to play either free or strong safety, so there will be times when Mathieu will get asked to drop deep and handle that role.

While Mathieu spent a lot of time covering the slot in Kansas City, Houston and Arizona, it’s telling that each team felt comfortable using him as the deep safety on single-high looks. However, his only interceptions when playing free safety came from Cover 2 looks, which is a coverage the Saints often play and will likely use more of moving forward.

There were some good examples on Mathieu’s tape of how he can get used in disguise. During the 2020 playoffs, Kansas City ran a play from Cover 2 where Daniel Sorensen dropped deep before the snap, and Mathieu dropped into a middle zone. Mathieu intercepted Baker Mayfield, who telegraphed the pass. Still, the ability to disguise in that moment stood out and will likely be something that the Saints look to do with their versatile safeties.

The fit alongside Marcus Maye should be a natural one. The Jets played primarily single-high safety looks last year but were primarily a Cover-1 and Cover-2 team in 2020. The Jets logged 40 or fewer snaps from Cover 4 looks each season from 2018-2020, though Maye did get some decent work out of the look as a rookie.

Using Maye in both safety spots should be extremely natural for him. He started his career as a free safety and showed outstanding range in that position but later transitioned to playing more in the box after the Jets traded Jamal Adams to the Seahawks. He should be comfortable playing either role.

The thing that will likely be most interesting this season is to see how the Saints play their coverages. The team could change how it operates entirely to better take advantage of the skillsets of the two players who will be starting at safety. Just because the team played a high percentage of single-high safety looks with Marcus Williams serving as the deep player doesn’t mean that the team will operate the same way with Mathieu and Maye in those roles.

It could make more sense to lean into more Cover 2, both man and zone, and Cover 4 defenses where those players can share some of the responsibilities and play in those interchangeable roles. Factoring in more Cover 6, where one side of the field plays Cover 2, and one side plays Cover 4, would also make sense if the team takes this style of approach.

There has been some evolution in the coverages Allen plays. In 2018, when Vonn Bell was starting opposite Williams, the Saints used Cover 3 as their primary coverage and only logged 37 snaps of Cover 4. In 2015, Allen’s first year as defensive coordinator, the team played seven snaps of Cover 4.

The defense will likely change and evolve because it always changes and evolves. But the good thing is, both of these players are versatile, and nothing about how they play should limit Allen’s imagination. These guys can do anything, and the Saints will take full advantage.

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