METAIRIE — There isn’t a lot of room for improvement by a team that went 13-3 and barely missed a trip to the Super Bowl.
But the New Orleans Saints believe they can and need to be better in pass defense if they’re going to take that extra step and reach the Super Bowl this season.
The Saints ranked 29th in the NFL in pass defense last season, allowing an average of 268.9 yards per game, though, like most statistics, that number doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Saints ranked second in run defense, meaning opposing offenses fell behind schedule a lot and were forced to throw the ball an inordinate amount on second-and-long and third-and-long.
Also, the Saints’ opponents were playing from behind most of the times, sometimes by large margins, further increasing the need to throw the ball. New Orleans’ opponents threw the 11th-most passes in the NFL and had the fourth-fewest rushing attempts.
Nonetheless there is definitely room for improvement for a defense that made just 12 interceptions and allowed 30 touchdown passes. It also yielded 14 completions of 40-plus yards, tied for second most in the league.
“We talked at the beginning of the offseason program,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said, “we’ve got to get better in terms of our pass defense.”
Of course the ability to pressure the quarterback will be an important component in the pass defense, but the secondary does have the potential for improvement.
Starting cornerback Eli Apple didn’t arrive in a trade with the New York Giants until New Orleans already had played six games last season. His presence was an upgrade, but he was playing mostly on instinct without having time to learn the defense in any depth.
Now he has had an entire offseason to study the playbook and film as well as brainstorm with secondary coach Aaron Glenn.
“I’m so pleased with how he has gone about this offseason,” Glenn said of Apple. “The way he has accepted the techniques that have been taught to him and put his ego to the side and just said I’m going to focus on what coach is teaching me about how to operate.
“It’s amazing how his game has continued to rise from OTAs, then it’s amazing how his football IQ has continued to escalate just by sitting down, talking and watching tape. He knows he still has a long ways to go and he’ll tell you that. It’s a joy to see how he’s operating now.”
The other starting cornerback, Marshon Lattimore, admitted that he didn’t push himself as hard as he could have last season after being named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. The result was a drop-off in his performance, which also happened with starting safety Marcus Williams, whose productivity dropped last season from his rookie season in 2018 in terms of interceptions (4-2), passes defensed (7-3) and tackles (72-57).
Nickelback Patrick Robinson played in just three games before suffering a broken ankle that ended his season, though P.J. Williams had the best stretch of his four-year career when he stepped in as Robinson’s replacement.
Head coach Sean Payton called the return of Robinson “another addition really to our roster based on the injury,” but so far in training camp Williams has been playing with the starting nickel defense.
The Saints drafted two safeties — C.J. Gardner-Johnson in the fourth round and Saquan Hampton in the sixth round —for potential depth and insurance as starting strong safety Vonn Bell enters the final year of his contract.
Gardner-Johnson has been competing with Robinson and P.J. Williams and was impressive in OTAs and mini-camp. Hampton has been one of the stars in the early days of training camp.
Both Payton and Glenn praised Hampton’s hands and Glenn compared them to Marcus Williams, saying “Marcus Williams has some of the best hands I’ve seen and I’m talking offense and defense.”
The final decisions on who makes the team in the secondary will be some of the more difficult ones for the coaching staff. Three of the backup spots are likely to go to special teams stalwarts – cornerback Marcus Sherels, signed as a veteran free agent to return punts, and two special teams utilitymen — safety Chris Banjo and cornerback Justin Hardee.
Others competing for roster spots are Ken Crawley, a four-year veteran and former starting cornerback, J.T. Gray, one of the longest shots to make last year’s roster, doing so as an undrafted rookie, Chris Campbell, signed to the practice roster last season, and two players signed just before the start of camp — Kayvon Webster, a seven-year veteran, and T.J. Green, a two-year veteran.