Saints have never been this complete in the Drew Brees era
The Saints are still getting elite quarterback play from Drew Brees. But now everything else they have in their winning jambalaya tastes better than ever.
At 6-1 this season, New Orleans is off to its most impressive start in five years, tied for second-best in the 13-year Brees era. In 2009, the Saints started 13-0 on their way to a Super Bowl 44 victory. That team fielded one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. When factoring all the efficiency and execution, that season marked Brees’ previous high-water mark.
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The Saints’ defense statistically wasn’t good overall in 2009, but it was aggressive and opportunistic in getting key sacks and takeaways, all the way through Tracy Porter’s famed pick-six of Peyton Manning.
Fast forward to now, when Brees’ career-high combination of completion percentage (77.4) and rating (118.2) at age 39 are being maintained even with less volume. That’s the scary thing: Brees has gone from needing to carry the team to simply being the spice that gives New Orleans its kick.
Beyond the best of Brees, here are five reasons to believe these Saints will be better than any version that has come before.
They have the NFL’s best run defense
The Saints are giving up 3.2 yards per carry and 74.1 rushing yards per game, by far the best numbers in the league. The highest they’ve ever been in either category during the Brees and coach Sean Payton era is No. 12. Note that the Eagles had the No. 1 run defense when they won Super Bowl 52.
In an offseason full of splashy NFC acquisitions, the Saints made the best underrated move in landing linebacker Demario Davis, an inside run-stopping specialist. Even in this era of pass-happiness, forcing teams to throw often is still a good game plan to force game-changing mistakes from opposing QBs. The Saints are not as bad against the pass as it might seem, because that’s the only way teams can move the ball on them.
It’s hard to beat these Saints without balance — something with which the Rams will challenge them in Week 9.
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They have the NFL’s best offensive line
The Saints have had many individual Pro Bowl players in front of Brees over the yars, including Jammal Brown, Jermon Bushrod, Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans and Jon Stinchcomb. But the current group is stacked at all five positions. Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk is dominant, and left tackle Terron Armstead is smooth and athletic. They form the best tackle duo in the league, grading out better on Pro Football Focus than the Rams’ older duo of Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein.
Getting center Max Unger in a trade for Jimmy Graham is still paying big dividends. Right guard Larry Warford represented the line in the Pro Bowl last season. Left guard Andrus Peat, “the weak link,” is still an absolute mauler and has yet to play at his healthiest this season.
These types of top linemen have rolled through New Orleans in the past. But now they’re all here at the same time and jelling at the highest level as equally strong pass protectors and run blockers.
They have the NFL’s two most unstoppable receivers
Marques Colston, Lance Moore and a revolving door of outside deep threats served as Brees’ standout receivers in the past, but none of his wideouts broke through for a Pro Bowl until Michael Thomas in 2017. There’s only one thing that has stopped the sound route-running, sure-handed Thomas in 2018: the Saints not throwing to him enough.
Thomas has an almost impossible catch rate with Brees this season with 58 receptions on 64 targets. He saw 40 targets in the first three games as the Saints were embroiled in shootouts. The last four weeks, it’s been only 24 total targets as the Saints have won more handily. When he was needed against Baltimore in Week 7, Thomas delivered the go-ahead touchdown in a fourth-quarter comeback.
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At some point, rising No. 2 wideout Tre’Quan Smith will make more big plays filling in for Ted Ginn after the rookie ripped through the Redskins during Brees’ record-breaking Monday night game. But for now, that other unstoppable force is running back Alvin Kamara, whose catch rate is still a healthy 77 percent vs. 81 percent during his stellar rookie season. When he gets his usual 15-25 touches per game, no one has been able to stay with Kamara in coverage or slow him down in the red zone.
Although the Saints have had many talented matchup nightmares such as Graham and Reggie Bush in the Brees era, this is the first time the Saints have doubled down with established, complementary threats. Thomas is more reliable than Graham, and Kamara is more explosive than Bush. It’s possible one team can contain Thomas or Kamara, but no one has the right size-speed personnel to handle both.
The Rams will be helpless either way, and that’s why the Saints are well positioned to outscore them Sunday. New Orleans can also throw in the wrinkle of big and fast Taysom Hill to further frustrate teams.
They are the NFL’s most impressive road team
The Rams also are 4-0 on the road as part of their 8-0 overall record. But two of Los Angeles’ road wins have come in California against Oakland and San Francisco. The others also came West of the Mississippi in Seattle and Denver.
The Saints have been knocked for being “an indoor team” that can’t win away from the friendly confines of the Superdome. Going into the season, they were set to have 11 total games indoors with the Falcons, Vikings and Cowboys on the road schedule.
New Orleans already won in loud, hostile environments in Atlanta and Minnesota, but it also took care of business in New York and Baltimore in less-than-ideal weather conditions as the tougher team in both games. While the passing game typically doesn’t travel well, stopping the run and being able to run the ball does.
The Saints were 7-1 on the road when they won Super Bowl 44. With Cincinnati, Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina left as away games this year, they are in great position to at least match that record and indicate they can win anywhere in the playoffs.
They can win any type of game against anyone
In 2009, the Saints had to jump on teams with their offense, build leads and then tee off against one-dimensional passing teams. Then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took chances in bringing extra pressure.
This year, New Orleans’ secondary has been more vulnerable than expected, as Marshawn Lattimore hasn’t been as dominant as he was last year. The Saints have struggled to find a competent No. 2 corner, and they have been roasted in the slot with P.J. Williams needing to play for the injured Patrick Robinson. Kurt Coleman and Marcus Williams also have had their share of woes at safety.
Their win over the Vikings was promising, however, because P.J. Williams made two big plays by forcing a fumble from Adam Thielen and finishing off Kirk Cousins’ comeback effort with a pick-six.
The Saints have yet to channel what Porter and the rest of the defense did in ’09, when they had 39 takeaways (No. 3 in the NFL) to finish plus-11 in turnover differential. The 2018 Saints are at zero in turnover differential because, despite seven giveaways going into Week 9, they are averaging only one takeaway per game. That number is bound to go up, as they have too many players with good ball skills who can step up.
If the Saints do beat the Rams in Week 9, they will take their rightful place as the best team in the NFL. As much as the Saints have rolled since that Week 1 hiccup against the Bucs, the best of this team is yet to come.
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