Saints film room: Why can’t this defense prevent big plays anymore?

The Saints defense has big-play problems.

The unit used to be good at stopping shots downfield, and completions were often kept at a manageable distance. Not anymore. Whether by air or by ground, foes are getting around the defense however they want. And Thursday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals was no different.

After Thursday night, the Saints have now allowed eight passing touchdowns on plays of 15-plus yards after surrendering only nine all of last year. They’ve also allowed eight runs of the same distance after allowing 16 last year.

So how is a team — led by a defensive-minded head coach — that used to be good at preventing big plays suddenly incapable?

I decided to go big picture with this week’s film study to locate the common trends between these plays to better understand why the team is surrendering so many explosive plays.

Starting with the passing plays, it looks like the Saints have had issues with just about every coverage. New Orleans’ primary coverages this year have been Cover 1 (57), Cover 4 (53), Cover 3 (38) and Cover 2 (36). They’ve given up 38 explosive plays, with the most commonly beat looks being Cover 1 (13), Cover 2 (8) and Cover 4 (6).

The samples here are small enough that a couple of plays can change the outlook, but there are some emerging trends. The Saints have allowed big plays on 22% of the snaps in which they played Cover 1 or Cover 2. They’ve only allowed big plays on 10% of their Cover 3 snaps and 11% in Cover 4.

The team wasn’t picky about which coverages got picked apart on Thursday. Arizona hit two explosive plays each against Cover 1, 2 and 4.

The run defense doesn’t have as many clear trends, because we’re talking about a much smaller sample size. Two of them have been inside zone plays, two outside zone, and the rest are scattered. When you lower the bar to gains of 10 yards or more, you can see five outside-zone plays and five man-blocking plays. The Saints missed three tackles on the man plays.

The way the Saints are losing in these situations is a mixed bag. There are a handful of plays where busted coverages and/or poor coverage is to blame. Tackles are also an issue. Sometimes, you get all three things on the same play, like when Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf got open against New Orleans for a 50-yard touchdown.

The wide receiver beat Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo on a double move after the deep safety got taken out of the play by a busted coverage underneath. Then, at the end of the play, neither Adebo nor Tyrann Mathieu attempted a tackle despite being in range to at last try to stop the big wide receiver.

Spotty tackling was also an issue against Minnesota when Alexander Mattison took a 15-yard screen in for a score. Arizona’s Keaontay Ingram turned a little dump-off pass into a gain of 24 after New Orleans missed four tackles on the play, starting with one against Justin Evans. And, of course, no one can forget Roby and Mathieu missing tackles on Ja’Marr Chase’s go-ahead touchdown against Cincinnati.

The New Orleans defense has surrendered more than 400 of 944 total passing yards on explosive plays after the catch. The 14 tackles the defense has missed on these plays have played a major part.

Many of them have been open-field tackles where players take poor angles to the ball. Linebacker Demario Davis missed one like that against Carolina; Mathieu had one against Minnesota; and Evans has had his hands dirty on a few. The biggest one might have been a miss by P.J. Williams in the flat on a 67-yard touchdown by Carolina’s Laviska Shenault Jr.


But it’s hardly just those guys. The problems run across the board. Shaky ability to finish sacks has also played a part. Chris Harris over-pursued Joe Burrow on a corner blitz, resulting in the Cincinnati quarterback scrambling for a 19-yard touchdown.

New Orleans has also had some issues with pick plays. Evans got caught up on one against Tampa Bay when he surrendered a 41-yard reception to Mike Evans, and Kaden Elliss got caught up in the wash covering Seahawks tight end Noah Fant on a 32-yard completion. To be fair, Elliss would have lost the rep either way and probably shouldn’t be playing man coverage.

Some busted coverages, in general, have been an issue. The Saints had one against Seattle when J.T. Gray blew one against Lockett on a 35-yard touchdown. Against Minnesota, Pete Werner dropped into coverage and tripped up Adebo on a 41-yard reception to Justin Jefferson.

To be fair to Adebo, he missed some time with an ankle injury, and it looks like he came back too soon. He struggled during his starts and ended up inactive for Thursday’s game against the Bucs. While on the field, he has surrendered seven of these big plays for 211 yards and four touchdowns. Roby (six receptions for 174 yards) and Williams (four for 149) have also allowed more than 100 yards on explosive plays.

Unsurprisingly, quarterbacks had more than three seconds to throw on 13 attempts. The pass rush managed eight pressures on these explosive plays, but seven came on plays where the quarterback held the ball for more than 3.5 seconds.

Many of the same issues appear in the running game. There are missed tackles and missed assignments, and the defense is giving up some massive holes. Cardinals running back Eno Benjamin had one Thursday night on a 45-yard gain that looked wide enough for a marching band to stroll through without getting out of formation. Kenneth Walker’s 69-yard touchdown felt more like good vision by the Seattle running back to cut back on the defense.

The problem with these plays is there doesn’t seem to be a single fix. There are many things wrong, and, being honest, a big portion of it seems to be due to some replacement-level players on the field. Getting healthy should help clean things up, but that would only be scratching the surface. New Orleans needs to plug a handful of leaks during this mini-bye before the next game.

The rest of the season depends on it.

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