Anatomy of a shutout: How the Saints got their juice back on defense in win over Raiders

Tucked behind his left ear, Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor has a tattoo of a crown accompanied by a message dripping with swagger.

“I’m him.”

All week, all season the Saints defense has been trying to play with that type of confidence. It once was their hallmark. The unit played with an energy and brashness that almost made it impossible for it to fail. It swarmed to the ball and then swarmed one another when they made plays. They got in people’s faces after plays, then took enough group photos to ensure everyone had a shot where they looked social-media ready.

But this year, the defense has been different. It seems more like a once active and great Instagram account that has fallen to the wayside. It still has something post-worthy every now and then, but, for the most part, there just haven’t been too many moments to flex.

But on Sunday, this defense showed everyone what they could do by shutting out the Raiders, 24-0. A statement win. Or so they hope.

“The biggest thing is the swagger,” Taylor said. “We played with it. It felt different on the sideline, on the field.”

Let’s take a moment to put this one in perspective. The Raiders are 2-5, and their season looks like it is swirling the drain. But their offense had been on fire, averaging 33 points per game over the past three weeks. This wasn’t some decrepit offense incapable of moving the ball. The Raiders brought a steep test to the table, and New Orleans aced it.

And now, following 10 days of gloom after the disaster in Arizona, suddenly everything feels possible because of the defense’s re-emergence.

The Saints’ issues haven’t really been the offense. The problem has been the defense not performing up to standard, and that was a huge issue because this team’s entire identity, on both sides of the ball, was formed with the idea that the defense would be good. Too often, it hasn’t lived up to that expectation, but this game felt like a checklist for all of their lingering problems.

They needed to stop the run better after getting gutted there week after week. They held the Raiders to 2.9 yards per carry.

The pass rush has been the subject of much scorn over the last several weeks. They recorded four sacks and nine quarterback hits.

They needed to shore up the pass coverage, which has busted too often and leaked easy yards. They limited Raiders to 145 passing yards.

No turnovers? Tyrann Mathieu fixed that with an interception on a tipped ball by Pete Werner.

The Saints played about as dominant of a game as a team can play in the modern NFL. So, how did it happen? Ask the defense and they’ll tell you that they played with more confidence, effort and were locked in on the details in a way they haven’t been in recent weeks.

Really? It’s that simple?

“I think so,” cornerback Paulson Adebo said with a smile and a laugh.

Maybe so. But it looked like more than that, and a lot of it started with good physical coverage. With Marshon Lattimore (kidney) out of action, Adebo and second-round pick Alontae Taylor started at the outside cornerback spots and absolutely dominated Las Vegas receivers Hunter Renfrow and Davante Adams. Adams finished with three yards, and Renfrow had six. Winning like that takes more than effort.

New Orleans played extremely physically with both of those players, particularly Taylor, who lined up in press coverage on 29 of 44 dropbacks. That number was significantly higher during the early quarters before the defense let its foot off the gas late in the game. Adebo more often played off coverage and pressed on about a dozen plays.

Having Taylor play so physically helped disrupt the timing of the Raiders’ offense. When he successfully blanketed someone or took them out of the mix, it forced Derek Carr to go deeper into his reads, allowing the pass rush to get home.

You can see very clearly how the success of the coverage played a part in the pass rush’s success. The second sack of the game, by Cam Jordan, came as a result of Carr being forced to hold the ball, as he was taken down more than five seconds after the snap. Payton Turner’s first sack of the game came on a play-action attempt where Carr had to tuck the ball after the defense erased his expected read down the field.

New Orleans created pressure on at least 17 passing plays, and you can see the same thing on many of them. At least seven plays seemed to feature pressure that arrived more than 2.5 seconds after the snap. Good things tend to happen for the pass rush when you can keep the quarterback scanning and searching for options.

And they needed it. Turner has been a healthy scratch in some games this season and battling injuries in others. The former first-round pick almost certainly had to hear people questioning his talent, but he proved today that he could play at this level and get things done. He needs to do more of that. Same thing for Onyemata, who has been quiet in far too many games this season.

Marcus Davenport wasn’t able to drop the quarterback today, but he was often in the backfield and delivered a huge run stuff on a third-down play by Adams that was a big part in killing the Raiders’ momentum. The moment was big for Davenport, because he got caught on a similar play against the Vikings.

“I think he kind of took it personal,” Mathieu said. “He didn’t want to let that happen again.”

But make no mistake, this was a big day for the cornerbacks, and it was no small task. Taylor was only making his second NFL start and got asked to carry a heavy load. Up against guys like Adams, and DeAndre Hopkins a week ago, and not only surviving but thriving has his confidence soaring. And Adebo showed signs of being the player who had everyone raving in camp. If both of them keep playing well, the Saints will eventually have to decide who will start opposite Lattimore. Having to choose between those two will be such a luxury.

“I knew we could do it. It wasn’t a shock to me,” Taylor said. “We both handled our business. We seen the result.”

We certainly saw signs of the secondary coming to life. Mathieu played a ton in the box and looked like the playmaker the team wanted him to be. He was around the ball all day and almost nabbed a second interception. Marcus Maye, meanwhile played great deep. Once the team gets P.J. Williams and Lattimore back, maybe, just maybe, this secondary will live up to some of the offseason hype.

But that’s getting down the road a bit. This is one game, and enough has gone wrong this season to make sure everyone takes a deep breath before making any major proclamations. But in one of the wackiest divisions in the NFL, the Saints suddenly look like a team that could figure things out in a enough time to make a serious push.

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