After three straight wins, Dennis Allen was able to joke about the elephant in the room that has practically shared an office with him all season long.
When a reporter started mentioning the “24-hour news cycle and social media,” Allen cracked, “You don’t have to remind me of that.”
That specific question was about the recent speculation that Sean Payton could be interested in returning to New Orleans (read here for NOF’s insight into why that is unlikely).
Not surprisingly, Allen didn’t bite on the subject.
“You’d have to ask the team (if it’s a distraction). All I can do … and I learned this a long time ago, you just put your head down and you go to work, and that’s all you can do,” Allen said. “I can’t control anything that’s said or done outside this building. That’s not anything I can control, so I’m not gonna spend a lot of time worrying about it. I’m gonna focus in on trying to get my team prepared the best way that I possibly can to go out and win a game. And we’ve been better at that over the last three weeks.”
Earlier in his Monday afternoon press conference, however, Allen brought up those media and social media “doubters” all on his own. Of course he has noticed the narrative that has engulfed him throughout this trying 7-9 season.
Allen wasn’t exactly taking a victory lap, considering the Saints had just been eliminated from playoff contention despite their 20-10 victory at Philadelphia. But it’s clear he feels some deserved pride for flipping the field a bit on that narrative in recent weeks – especially when it comes to the job his defense has been doing.
Since Week 8, the Saints are 5-4, ranking third in the NFL in points allowed (15 per game), first in yards allowed per play (4.66), seventh in yards allowed per game (307.3) and first in passing yards allowed per game (175.7).
“Look, there was a lot of change,” Allen said of the defense’s slower start. “I’m in a new role, I’ve got some assistant coaches that are in a new role, we brought in some new players, we’ve had a lot of injuries at a lot of different positions. So it’s just taken a little bit of time. But that’s why you have something you believe in and you stick with it and you keep grinding and you keep working.
“I think what we’ve done here (over Allen’s years as defensive coordinator) has proven that it can be successful in our league, so our guys have kind of stuck with that, and we’re seeing some of the fruits of that labor now.”
I followed up by asking Allen if it was important for his team to see that proof again this year, considering the coaching changes.
“It’s important every year,” Allen said. “Look, and I know that there’s been – there’s doubters out there. And I’m comfortable with that, I understand that. But I think the resume speaks for itself in terms of what the Saints defenses have been able to do, going all the way back to ‘17 and through now. That’s why we never panicked when things weren’t going exactly the way that we wanted it to go, because we knew that at the end of the year we felt like we were gonna be still one of the better defenses in our league.
“I wish we had taken advantage of opportunities we had … This game’s about winning, it’s about production. We’ve given ourselves opportunities, but I feel like there was a few opportunities that slipped through our fingers.”
Allen said there were never any major changes to the overall approach and philosophy.
“I mean, I think things have been a little bit different in how you approach each week and the message you send your team,” Allen said. “Again, I feel like the culture that I’ve been a part of and the way of doing things has proven to be successful in our league. So just because you go through some hard times doesn’t mean that all of a sudden everything’s gotta change. Sometimes you gotta stick with it.
“Now, you can’t just bury your head in the sand and act like everything’s fine. You have to address issues and problems and make sure you’re doing the right things. But I don’t think philosophically you go away from what you believe in.”
Along this same subject line, it was also interesting Monday that tight end Juwan Johnson brought up Allen unprompted when asked about the team’s motivation heading into this final week.
“We’re playing for a lot of different things. We’re playing for momentum into next year, we’re playing for DA, we’re playing for our coordinators, we’re playing for a lot of people, we’re playing for ourselves, playing for our brothers,” Johnson said.
When asked if he mentioned “playing for DA” because he is aware of the scrutiny his coach has been under, Johnson said, “A lot of times … a lot of guys don’t play for their coaches, a lot of times they don’t like their coaches. But knowing that we have such a close relationship with our coach, we’re playing for him. We’re playing for each other, we’re playing for him, we’re playing for our coordinators, we’re playing for a lot of other people. You hear a bunch of noise, but you definitely play for the guys who have invested so much time – DA has invested so much time into us.”
Obviously Johnson doesn’t speak for everyone on the team, but that was still a notable endorsement. The way the team has continued to play in December is even more notable.
JORDAN RULES: Cameron Jordan officially became the Saints’ all-time sack leader Sunday – and he did it with a splash by sacking Eagles quarterback Gardner Minshew three times to reach 115.5 in his stellar 12-year career.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson held the previous record with 115. (It’s worth noting that total doesn’t count his rookie season of 1981, before sacks became an official statistic. Pro Football Reference counted eight more for Jackson that season for an unofficial total of 123 when he was with the Saints – so Jordan will surely want to add at least eight more of his own.)
Jordan earned a game ball in the postgame locker room and all the accolades you could possibly heap on him as he continues to make his own strong case for a gold jacket.
When asked how long he plans to play, the 33-year-old had jokes.
“I don’t know, Tom Brady’s like 75, right? So half that. I’ll take 37 and a half,” said Jordan, who started reflecting on all of his favorite victims.
Of course he remembered the first one (since it was his only one as a rookie in 2011 against the Panthers’ Cam Newton). Then he recalled his first three-sack game against the Eagles and Michael Vick in 2012.
“Then it gets a little blurry,” Jordan said. “There were some Josh Freemans in there, like a myriad of Tampa Bay quarterbacks. Lots of Matt Ryan, he’s been good to me. Happy New Years Matt Ryan if you see it. There was lots of Cam Newton, appreciate you big dog, best draft class 2011. There was some Jameis Winston, love it … I sent him a reel when we were on the plane his first year here.”
Jordan also went on to thank mentors like Jonathan Vilma and the late Will Smith among other teammates and opponents he has admired and learned from.
Allen praised Jordan for embodying “what you want in a player.”
“We talk about being tough, we talk about being smart, we talk about being competitive, I think he’s got all those characteristics,” said Allen, who pointed out that Jordan has only missed two games in his career – one due to COVID last season and one this season due to a “fluke orbital bone fracture that he would’ve played through and we wouldn’t let him.”
“There’s a reason why he’s the franchise leader in sacks and it’s all those things,” Allen said. “Sure he’s big and strong and powerful and he’s got speed, but it’s really the mental makeup and what’s in his heart that really has allowed him to do the things that he’s been able to do.”
STICKING WITH DALTON: Allen said the Saints are still playing to win Sunday against the Panthers in the Superdome, even though both teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. So when asked specifically if there could be a quarterback change, Allen said, “I don’t see any changes there.”
Allen didn’t rule out the possibility of some younger players getting more playing time – especially if injuries dictate that. But otherwise he said he expects all healthy players to play.
Obviously the Saints’ decision to keep Winston on the sideline even now that they have been eliminated only further suggests that they are likely to part ways this offseason. Otherwise you’d have to assume they would want to get another look at him in this offense now that he has had time to heal from the back and foot injuries he suffered in September.
I broke down the wide spectrum of options the Saints could consider at QB this offseason, including Winston (who has one year remaining on his contract) and Dalton (who is an unrestricted free agent).
When asked if the 35-year-old Dalton has proven he is still a “starter” in the NFL, Allen complimented him without committing to him in the future.
“He’s played well for us, and he’s made a lot of good plays. He’s handled the offense the right way. I think we’ve been efficient with him in there offensively,” Allen said. “So, yeah, I think he has the ability to be a starting quarterback in our league. You know, I don’t know. I know we like him here.”
WHY NO TAYLOR OR PENNING? Speaking of guys who could get more playing time in advance of 2023, it was a bit surprising to see rookie first-round pick Trevor Penning play only six offensive snaps Sunday and second-round pick Alontae Taylor play zero defensive snaps.
Penning’s lack of playing time makes more sense, considering he has only played the “jumbo tight end” role since returning from a major toe injury in late November. So it would have been quite a leap for him to replace Ryan Ramczyk at right tackle after Ramczyk left in the first half with a hip injury considering Penning said he hasn’t lined up on the right side since he played right guard his freshman year of college. Allen also said it would have taken some shuffling at multiple positions to move Penning to his natural position at left tackle and move veteran James Hurst to right tackle.
But it will be interesting to see if the Saints consider that second option with a full week to practice if Ramczyk remains injured.
As for Taylor, the decision to move him to the bench after starter Marshon Lattimore returned from injury was more about how well the coaching staff feels about second-year starter Paulson Adebo.
“I felt like for the majority of that game that we were playing really, really well defensively, so we just kept with the same group out there,” Allen said. “But, look, Alontae’s a good player. We really like him. He’s a young player that’s shown a ton of promise, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities.”
Adebo obviously had one major stumble in the second half when he lost a hand-fighting battle with Eagles receiver A.J. Brown and gave up a 78-yard touchdown pass. And Adebo has been the victim of some recent pass interference penalties that were costly. But Allen said he continues to play well overall.
“Look, the way that we play, we put our corners on an island a lot. And you’ve gotta be a big boy to be able to play out there, because there hasn’t been any great corner in our league that hasn’t gotten beat every now and then,” Allen said. “So you have to be thick skinned and tough minded, and certainly I feel like our corners are that. Like I said (after the game), it’s a really good problem to have (to have that many good cornerbacks to choose from).”
2023 OPPONENTS AND DRAFT SLOT: The Saints will finish second in the NFC South if they beat Carolina (or tie) and third if they lose (Atlanta would finish fourth in a three-way tie at 7-10). So we know most of the possible schedule options for New Orleans in 2023:
Home: Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Bears, Lions, Jaguars, Titans, NFC East opponent TBD (Cowboys will finish second, Giants will finish third).
Away: Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers, Packers, Vikings, Colts, Texans, NFC West opponent TBD (Seahawks will finish second, Rams currently leading Cardinals for third), AFC East opponent (Patriots currently leading Dolphins for second, Dolphins currently leading Jets for third).
As for the Saints’ draft slot – which will unfortunately go to the Eagles in Round 1 – they are currently projected to pick 10th. And it looks like they could wind up anywhere between the 10th and 16th pick. Draft tie-breakers are determined by strength of schedule. So according to these numbers from Tankathon, it doesn’t look the Saints could climb into the top nine even with a loss. And it doesn’t look like they could wind up with the 17th or 18th pick in any tie-breaking scenarios unless there are radical changes to the SOS percentages in Week 18.
Of course, the Saints could wind up picking in Round 1 if the Payton trade market continues to heat up. Multiple reports Sunday morning suggested the Broncos will show significant interest – though there was no indication if the feeling is mutual with Payton.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Saints are now 15-1 all-time when Taysom Hill has at least seven rushing attempts after he matched his career high with 14 carries for 46 yards and a touchdown Sunday.