For the past 13 years the marriage between head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees has turned around the fortunes of the New Orleans Saints. The hiring of Payton and the signing of Brees in 2006 were afterthoughts at the time due to the fact that the Saints were hiring a head coach who didn’t have any prior head coaching experience, while the quarterback was coming off of having shoulder surgery on his right arm. But what ensued was a turnaround for the ages as the Saints who had gone 3-13 in 2005, would win the NFC South in 2006 as well as just their second playoff victory in franchise history. The Saints would continue to build off of their new found success and in 2009, they would win their first Super Bowl Championship. But from 2014-2016, the Saints would go 7-9 in each season as they were dealing with the effects of having a reduction in draft picks due to “Bountygate” as well as Brees taking up a healthy portion of their salary cap due to his hefty contract. Brees would continue to put up “video game” type numbers through the passing game, but without a running game to compliment their passing attack, as well as having a defense to stop opposing offenses, there was little that New Orleans could do in order to be a contender in the NFC.
However things have changed and the Saints have gotten back to the basics. Over the past few years Saints executive vice president of football operations Mickey Loomis has gotten back to solid drafting which has seen New Orleans improve their running game as well as their defense, and the end result has the folks on the bayou thinking about going back to the Super Bowl.
When the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, they had one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League which is something that they have now gotten back to. Left tackle Terron Armstead was a third-round pick of the Saints in 2013, and he is morphing into one of the best players in the NFL at his position as he is charged with protecting the blind side of Brees. When the Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, they didn’t walk away from the deal empty handed as they acquired center Max Unger as part of the deal. Unger helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl 2013 as he anchored their offensive line, and now he is doing the same for the Saints. Left guard Andrus Peat was selected 13th overall by the Saints in 2015, and like it is for Armstead, he is overdue to get some love in regards to making the Pro Bowl, while right tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a first-round pick of the club last year. And together this unit has come together to give Brees a fortress of protection in front of him.
But protecting Brees also means providing him with a quality rushing attack as the Saints are currently fourth in the National Football League on the ground. In 2017, running back Alvin Kamara was an unheralded third-round pick, but he quickly became a household name as he racked up 1,554 yards from scrimmage last season en route to being selected as the National Football League’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Kamara has built off of that strong rookie campaign as he is on pace to gain 1,000 yards on the ground, while Brees consistently counts on him to catch passes coming out of the backfield. Kamara does not have to do it all by himself as the Saints also have veteran running back Mark Ingram who gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground in each of the last two seasons. The running ability of both Kamara and Ingram means that the Saints will always keep a fresh back on the field, and it also makes Brees that more dangerous in the passing game.
Brees will always find open receivers and put up big passing numbers, but now due to the Saints renewed focus on running the football, he is not trying to be Superman. In five of the Saints victories so far this season, Brees has passed for under 250 yards. In the Saints win over the Falcons this past Thursday night, Brees only completed 15 passes, but 4 of them went for touchdowns. Brees was already a good quarterback, but now his efficiency is reigning supreme. Brees is completing 76.4% of his passes this season as he is benefiting from the Saints ground game. And as we’ve seen in years past, the Saints are tough to compete with at the Superdome once you spot Brees a lead which is the case once again, while he also now has a defense to compliment the offense.
Heading into their Week 12 meeting with the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints possessed the 14th ranked defense in the National Football League which is a far cry from what the unit was just three years ago when they flirted with giving up 7,000 yards for the season. 2015 was Dennis Allen’s first year as the Saints defensive coordinator and since then he has worked on making his unit more aggressive.
The Saints have a “bend but don’t break philosophy on defense and they know when to step up in order to make the big plays. Through 11 games this season the Saints have 30 sacks as they are led by defensive end Cameron Jordan who has 8. The Saints are also near the bottom of the National Football League in regards to pass defense, but those numbers are skewed due to the fact teams are consistently playing catch up due to precision of the New Orleans offense.
The 2018 Saints also have the ability to mix it up in regards to how they go about winning games. We’ve seen the Saints put up at least 40 points in five games which included going toe-to-toe with the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints would go on to win their Week Nine battle with the Rams as that contest could’ve determined who will have home-field advantage in the NFC Playoffs. New Orleans also knows how to impose their will on an opponent as the Cincinnati Bengals can attest to. In Week 10 the Saints would score touchdowns on their first five possessions of the contest en route to a 51-14 win over the Bengals, and they would follow this up by destroying the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11 by the score of 48-7. Overall the Saints are now 10-1 this season which is good enough for the top spot in the NFC as they will be a dangerous team come January in the playoffs.
At home the Saints are darn near unstoppable as Brees and the offense have a big time advantage on a fast track in the climate controlled environment of the Superdome, while they also having the running attack to finish games as well as a defense which can close the door. And if this all sounds familiar, this is the formula that the Saints used in 2009 to win it all as they were one of the most balanced teams in football. Brees has had to learn the hard way that he cannot do it all by himself as it is the team that will win a title, and not him alone. And if the Saints are able to finish with the best record in the NFC, good luck to any team that will have to face them under the lights in the dome as it will be a tough task at the very least.