Cold in Cleveland. Even colder in Hotlanta. To say the New Orleans Saints' defense has had a rough go of it through two games of the 2014 NFL season would be putting things quite mildly, and the players on that side of the ball are ready to make a statement. They are unlikely to find a better starting, or, restarting point than the opportunity presented to them this Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in New Orleans' home-opener at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome.
The Vikings will enter the dome with shrouds of uncertainty surrounding their star player, Adrian Peterson, who continues to fall under the scope of public opinion and legal issues in regards to the allegations of child abuse that emerged last week. Peterson was deactivated for the Vikes' week 2 loss to New England and is now on the NFL's exempt list as he prepares to handle his legal matters.
The Vikings will bring the league's 31st-ranked passing attack into the Superdome Sunday, and sans Peterson, will turn to the likes of Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon to help move the ball on the ground. Through 2 games, with Peterson having only played in the season-opener, Minnesota's ground game ranks 16th in the NFL, generating 119.5 yards per game. Matt Cassel will hope to have enough time to get the ball to playmakers like Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, and Kyle Rudolph, while the Vikings' backs will look to churn out enough yards on the ground to keep the Saints' defense honest. The Saints' defense knows it won't have to account for Adrian Peterson on Sunday.
Trouble is, New Orleans' defense has been honestly bad through the first two games of the 2014 season. The Saints have seen communication issues, missed tackles, coverage breakdowns, and fundamental errors strongly contribute to their 0-2 start. The offense played its part in the tomfoolery week 2 as the team fell at Cleveland, but did more than enough to secure victory in week 1 at Atlanta, only to be undone by an unlikely turnover and subsequent field goal in overtime.
Now, however, the Saints will be at home, in front of a raucous Superdome crowd which will be ready to help will their team to its first victory in 2014. The opponent is ripe for the picking, and with Drew Brees and company ready to unleash their fury upon the Vikings, all eyes will be focused on Rob Ryan's defense, as the Saints should be primed for a breakthrough performance on that side of the ball.
Entering week 3, New Orleans finds themselves ranked 31st in total defense. A secondary which was once seen as a strength heading into this season has been disappointing. A linebacking corps has underwhelmed, and a defensive front has struggled to get pressure into opponents' backfields. The stage will be set for the script to be flipped on Sunday, as New Orleans will look to feed off of its home environment with an eye on putting things right defensively.
Third-down has been an issue for the Saints through two games this season. In 2013, an upstart Saints defense saw opponents convert just 34.7 percent of their third-downs. Heading into week 3, the Saints have seen the Falcons and Browns combine to convert on 48 percent of their third-down opportunities, with third-and-mediums being easily transformed into first-downs. Therefore, the emphasis on getting off the field on third-down has been strong in practice this week.
“The thing, particularly, would be third-and eight or nine or 10 or more yards,” Coach Sean Payton said Thursday. “We’ve given up some long-yardage situations where you want to get off the field defensively, and the opponent has converted a longer yardage situation where percentage-wise, usually, you hope to be better. That would be one area today that we covered.” Patrick Robinson has endured a difficult 2014 season thus far.
“There’s about eight third-down statistics that we’ll cover," Payton continued. "Obviously, the first one is just conversions and your percentage. Then we’ll talk about sacks on third down, turnovers on third down, hurries. There are some areas there that hopefully, we can improve on defensively and then offensively, our numbers have been high (15 for 26) and hopefully we can continue that.”
Linebacker Ramon Humber said the team's inability to get off the field on third-and-long has been a confidence killer.
“Third-and-long, your goal is to get off the field and it’s a killer if they’re able to convert,” Humber said. “It’s something we thrive on, it’s something we’ve worked on this week. We were good at it last year, we’ve just got to continue to work on it.”
The Saints are also looking to put an emphasis on prodcuing turnovers, something which helped spearhead their run towards Super Bowl glory five years ago. Forcing turnovers was one of the team's biggest goals heading into the season, and to date, New Orleans has produced just one, a Jairus Byrd forced fumble in week 1.
“In two games, we came up with a real good strip fumble in Atlanta, but since then it generally is more than just one specific area," Payton said. "It is obviously applying the right amount of pressure, its population to the ball, it is all of those things and the same thing applies to the kicking game. You have those opportunities; they are like defensive snaps when you are covering a punt or a kick. Getting numbers to the ball and I think that specific area is one that was the major topic this morning. With regards to offense and defense is the importance of that statistic alone.”
With third-downs and turnovers being emphasized, the technical and fundamental issues still stand to be corrected. CB Patrick Robinson, in particular, has struggled with technique which has seen him hung out to dry in coverage. Robinson was benched last week, as Corey White moved into the base defense with Robinson being relegated to nickel duties.
"He's an easy target. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff he'll want to clean up. But there's a lot of muddy hands just to be singling out one player," Payton said after the loss in Cleveland. "He's gonna work to improve, and we've gotta look overall at how we're helping not just him, but the rest of those guys." Akiem Hicks is a player the Saints will look at to help kickstart their 2014 defense.
"Just got to keep working," Robinson said. "You've got to keep working to get it right. Well, I'm not sure it's going to come overnight...just have to keep working on my assignments, my technique. Simple as that."
The Saints' secondary, as a whole, has struggled. Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro have not provided much help for Robinson, White and Keenan Lewis as the defensive backs have struggled to sustain downfield coverage and have seen communication issues affect their effectiveness in both zone and man-coverage.
The corners have struggled to jam receivers off the line of scrimmage which helps attribute to their problems. An inability to pass off receivers when in zone has left massive openings for opponents to get free, as was seen in Atlanta in week 1.
But the secondary is not alone, as the front seven has seen sub-par execution contribute to the team's defensive struggles. The pass rush from the defensive front has not been consistent or effective enough, allowing Matt Ryan and Brian Hoyer extra time to get through their progressions and find the best option. The interior line has been disappointing, with the likes of Brodrick Bunkley, Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins struggling to make an impact.
Poor execution has lead to poor communication. Poor communication has led to poor angles. Poor angles have led to missed tackles. The beat goes on, but it may stop this Sunday as the Saints return to the dome for their 2014 home-opener.
Enter a somewhat-reeling Vikings team, coming off a 30-7 battering at the hands of the Patriots. The 1998 Vikings will not be walking through the doors of the Superdome, instead leaving Matt Cassel and his 2014 teammates, minus their superstar running back, to attempt to find a way to become the third team to best the Saints' defense.
That defense is primed to make good on what was supposed to be a 2014 season full of lofty goals. The Saints know what they can expect from their offense, and the time is now for the defense to make their statement. The Dome will be loud, and Ryan will have his unit geared up to put the lingering taste of the last two weeks to bed, for good.
The defense showed some improvement from week 1 to week 2, but it was not enough. With the Saints returning home for the first time this season, the stage for Wheel of Fortune: Reversal Edition is set.
“I think our players are excited. We are," Payton said. "I think more importantly you get excited just for the next opportunity. It can’t come quick enough when you have a tough loss. So now it is just the preparation in the work week and making sure you are doing everything you can to put together the best plan possible.”
Payton also added that Ryan's work ethic will play a large role in the defense reversing its fortunes. The two coaches were caught in a heated exchange towards the end of last Sunday's loss in Cleveland, but Payton stressed it was business as usual, and his defensive coordinator is hard at work to get things fixed. Even without Adrian Peterson, the Vikings still have threats at the skill spots, such as WR Cordarrelle Patterson.
"What makes (Ryan) such a good coach is his passion," Payton said. "That passion’s something you need to have. Every one of us goes back upstairs and we start working on third down tonight. You quickly have to get past (last week), not ignore, get past and understand why. I think that is important, (for us to) understand why we lost and then get on to the next plan. I think his passion and his ability to teach, he is someone that, shoot, he has been through tough times and I think his response and all of ours as coaches is get back to work and put together a better plan. He is outstanding that way.”
Payton is familiar with the Vikings' first-year coach, Mike Zimmer. The two worked together for three seasons under Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys. Zimmer, a defensive-minded, hands-on teacher, has entrusted Norv Turner to coordinate his offense. One of the game's most decorated offensive minds, Turner will be the first opposing play-caller to experience the 2014 edition of the New Orleans Saints' home-based defense.
Turner has seen his passing offense struggle through the first two games, which bodes well for the Saints. With no Adrian Peterson, Minnesota will have to be extremely efficient in order to generate enough offense to keep the game close.
With Brees and the Saints' offense set to attack at will, the opportunity will be present for Ryan to let his defense pin the ears back and attack in their own right. If the issues that have hampered the Saints through the first two games can't be fixed on the field this weekend, the alarm bells will surely start to sound around the Crescent City, and the problems will be attributed to more than just the usual "Saints can't win on the road" cliche.
However, all signs are pointing to a much better day at the office for Ryan's troops. The ever-popular theme of "finish strong" has been the mantra in New Orleans this week. In order to get to that finish line, the Saints will need a good, quick start from their defense, and there could not be a better place to get things sorted out than the friendly confines of home.
"Obviously we've gotta fix something. That's two losses where we didn't finish," Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "We've just got to get together and do more, man."
Things should be fixed. More should be done. Games must be finished. The table is set for all of that to come to fruition on Sunday inside the Superdome.