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Thursday, October 8, 2015

The 2015 New Orleans Saints just need to find one great strength

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2015 at 2:58 PM

click to enlarge CREATIVE COMMONS/ASIM BHARWANI
  • CREATIVE COMMONS/ASIM BHARWANI

After their 1-3 first quarter-season, the Saints face a schedule mostly composed of losers and pretenders. They don't need to become a particularly good football team. They just have to be better than awful.

The Saints opened 1-3 in 2000, too — their only win was over the Ryan Leaf-led San Diego Chargers — and that year also were up against an easy schedule. They ripped off six wins in a row over bad teams and took control of the then-NFC West. They did so by doing one thing exceptionally well: rushing the passer.

These 2015 Saints won't spontaneously generate the likes of Joe Johnson, Darren Howard, La'Roi Glover and Norman Hand, even if rookie linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha does build on his fast start, so their pass rush won't save them. Fortunately the Saints' one great thing doesn't have to be their pass rush. There are other contenders for what could carry the Saints to the top of their garbage heap schedule.

Let's take a look at a couple of them.

The Secondary

The Saints' pass defense has been bad so far this year — really bad. It ranks 20 by yards allowed, which doesn't come close to telling the full story. The 9.8 yards the Saints allow per pass attempt is by far the worst number in the league this year, and, should they sustain it, would be one of the worst performances of all time. The Saints' passer rating allowed, 116.3, is also the worst in the NFL so far, and they have yet to intercept a single pass.

But the immediate future looks bright. About 15 percent of the total passing yards the Saints have allowed have come on three deep passes that victimized disappointing cornerback Brandon Browner, and the Saints will be able to limit Browner's snaps and vulnerability by replacing him in such situations with returning starter Keenan Lewis.  At the same time, Jairus Byrd is back to handle free safety duties that have until now been left to Kenny Phillips, who had been out of the NFL for years before this season.

Byrd and Lewis, along with Delvin Breaux and Kenny Vaccaro, give the Saints what is likely the most solid secondary they've had since 2013. In fact, this is the first time since 2013 and the loss of cornerback Jabari Greer that the Saints have fielded a fully healthy secondary. Greer went unreplaced in 2014, so the first time Lewis and Breaux start a game together will be the first time since then that the Saints have had two healthy cornerbacks you'd actually want to see on the perimeter of their defense.

It's a long climb up from where they are now, but don't be shocked if, very soon, the Saints' defensive backfield is a strength.

The Triplets

So far, Brandin Cooks has been quiet. The receiver, who burned up preseason, has 20 catches, but for only 215 yards and no touchdowns. He's failed to make a big play or to positively change a game. At the same time, running back CJ Spiller's presence in the offense has been limited thanks to his recovery from a preseason injury. Not until late in last Sunday night's win over Dallas did Spiller make his presence known.

The result of Spiller's presence was an explosion that sealed the season's first win in extraordinary fashion. Now, it's Sean Payton's job to more fully integrate Spiller into his plan of attack. The threat Spiller will pose to defenses will force them to take pressure off Cooks, which will give the receiver a chance to make the sort of plays now he's known for making when the games don't count.

And that will not only make life easier on Drew Brees but also give the one-armed superhero a chance to thrive. 

The fully-formed triumvirate of Spiller, Cooks, and Brees may be capable of resupplying the offense's lost big play factor. The Saints' offense ranks a perhaps surprising sixth overall in the league right now, and has performed very well on third downs. Even its red zone scoring performance this year, much discussed given the departure of Jimmy Graham, is not significantly different from last year.

All that's missing is a handful of exciting moments. The Saints can get that from having Spiller on the field more.

Aside from the surging Atlanta Falcons, no team on the Saints' schedule is intimidating. Granted, the Saints aren't good themselves — every bad team they'll face has a writer like me saying about New Orleans what I'm saying about them. Still, the storyline of this season may be shifting. The Saints will have opportunities. A lot of opportunities.

They just need one team strength with which to take advantage of those opportunities.

If we're really fortunate, they'll have two.

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