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Barry Hirstius

5 Things We NEVER EXPECTED to See From the 2017 Saints That We Already Have

For fans of the New Orleans Saints, the first 7 games of the 2017 NFL season has certainly brought them some very unexpected results.

For example: seeing their favorite team currently standing somewhat "tall" at the moment as the #3 seed in the National Football Conference Playoff race; as the League has officially reached its half-way point of the season.

It's a staggering improvement for a team that fans were hopeful would be better this year than in previous years past, but likely had no idea that we'd see what we've seen (so far), from this football team in the last several weeks.

It's with that very theme in mind, that this morning: we're taking a quick look at 5 things that we NEVER EXPECTED (not here at the Saints News Network anyway) to see unfold as they have, as the team prepares to play its 8th game of the season this Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And we'll start with #5, and work our way down to #1 — starting with this one............

 

#5. OTHER THAN DREW BREES, A ROOKIE CORNERBACK IS THE TEAM'S MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

My good friend John Hendrix, Managing Editor and featured columnist for Canal Street Chronicles, just yesterday conducted a poll that asked Saints fans to vote for their choice for the team's MVP (most valuable player) so far at the midway point of the season, and Saints rookie (and the team's top 2017 draft pick) Marshon Lattimore won by an overwhelming majority (62%).

That's a phenomenal accomplishment if you think about it, especially on a football team that has a 16th year veteran QB (Drew Brees) who will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame on the very 1st ballot that his name is put on.

As I've said previously: there aren't enough words to accurately describe just how much that Lattimore's presence has meant to the Saints defense this year. Having Lattimore now allows them to basically keep opposing #1 WR's from other teams "locked down" and allows defensive coordinator Dennis Allen the opportunity to blitz or utilize different looks in coverage. In short, the Saints can do a lot more things now that they couldn't do before.

The ONLY other rookie that I personally can recall making this type of an impact (either on offense OR defense) was Rickey Jackson, the defensive end (who was converted to outside linebacker) and the team's 2nd round pick in the 1981 NFL Draft out of the University of Pittsburgh — who as most Saints fans know, was the team's greatest defensive player EVER and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.

For Lattimore, that's some pretty special company to be a part of; for a 21-year old fresh out of college, and only 5 games into an NFL career.

 

#4. A SMILING (YES, HE DOES SMILE) HEAD COACH SEAN PAYTON IS REINVIGORATED BY HIS YOUNG TEAM, THANKS TO ARGUABLY THE TEAM'S BEST DRAFT CLASS EVER

Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com |The Times-Picayune

For the first time that I can ever recall in the 11 years since Sean Payton has been head coach of the Saints, I can't ever think of a time where I've seen him SMILING this much, as if he were happy about something. It's honestly very refreshing to see, but the first thing that you realize is what's behind that smile.

For Payton, it's never been a question of IF he could get the Saints to start winning again; but more of an issue of when he could make it happen, by finally getting the right players in place once again to "fit" the particular program that he's had in place since 2006.

Payton has had the right personnel in place previously and it brought both him and the franchise great success (2006, 2009, 2011). He simply had to wait to get the right players to finally "fit" what he wants to do — and what has put this team "over the top" was this year's 2017 Draft class that have given the Saints a handful of rookies that have already made an immediate impact this season.

The list that already includes current starters Marshon Lattimore (1st Round) , right offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (1st Round), free safety Marcus Williams (2nd Round), and running back Alvin Kamara (3rd Round).

Also don't forget: linebacker (and 3rd Round pick) Alex Anzalone was starting before he got hurt and placed on injured reserve; fellow 3rd Round pick and reserve defensive end Trey Hendrickson has seen an increased role in recent weeks, and 6th Round pick Al-Quadin Muhammad has also played some this year.

When you add it all up, it makes this year's 2017 Saints Draft class potentially one of the best if not THE BEST Saints Draft class ever, throughout the team's entire 51-year history. And it's because of that, why Payton seems to be reinvigorated by the "swagger" and confident demeanor that this injection of talented youth has given the team.

You'd be smiling too (if you aren't already), if you were in his shoes right now.

 

#3. THE SAINTS ARE BACK ON TOP IN THE NFC SOUTH DIVISION

(AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

It's been 4 years since the last time that the Saints led the NFC South Division, and as of right now the Saints find themselves on top of what most people right now consider the best division in Pro Football.

But nevertheless, make no mistake about it: this division is far from being decided with a whole 9 games still left to play; and with both the Saints' division rivals Carolina and Atlanta — two teams that were in the Super Bowl in the past 2 years (Panthers, 2015; Falcons last year) — breathing right down their necks.

In fact: the NFC South is currently the tightest division race in the NFL as of this very moment; with only a single game separating the Saints (5-2), the Panthers (5-3) and the Falcons (4-3). 

That essentially means that this will be a 3-way dance for the division crown the rest of the way, and the Saints actually have to face the Falcons 2 times in a three-week span in December that will ultimately determine both teams' respective fates both within the division as well as the conference standings.

But despite the tough road still ahead for New Orleans, it's definitely nice to see the city's name back on top of the standings once again, instead of finding themselves on the bottom of them as they have for the past 3 seasons.

 

#2. AFTER GETTING THEIR ASS KICKED IN THE FIRST 2 GAMES, THE SAINTS HAVE REELED OFF 5 STRAIGHT WINS IN A ROW

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

After thoroughly getting their collective asses kicked in their opening first 2 games in back-to-back losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the defending World Champion New England Patriots, you would have had a very hard time convincing anybody that the Saints would go on a 5-game winning streak after that.

And yet: here we are.

It's a very special accomplishment for this young Saints team, considering that only 7 other Saints teams in the franchise's entire 51-year history have a winning streak of at least 5 games or more in a single season.

The only other Saints teams to have 5-game winning streaks during their seasons were the ones from 198719911992200020092011, and 2013.

ALL 7 of those Saints teams made the NFL Playoffs later that year.

Now of course, with 9 more games still left to play, anything can happen (and usually does), so we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and declare the Saints a "Playoff team" just yet.

But given where those other 7 Saints teams who have ever had 5-game winning streaks ended up, there's a pretty good chance (or better than average, anyway) that a trip to the NFL post-season isn't a far-fetched possibility for this current Saints team.

 

#1. BY GOD — THE SAINTS FINALLY HAVE A REAL DAMN DEFENSE

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

By far and away, the #1 thing that not ANY Saints fan — both young or old, and either knowledgeable about the sport of Pro Football or just a mere novice — EVER saw coming was the rapid emergence of this team's defense; especially after those first 2 losses of the season mentioned above.

It's been well-documented that the franchise has struggled on that side of the ball over the past 3 seasons, all of which ended up with a (7-9) season record and without a spot in the NFL Playoffs.

And then when you throw in the fact that New Orleans began the season with a pair of downright embarrassing back-to-back losses while giving up an average of 32.5 points per game in the process; it initially appeared that the franchise and more specifically its perennially bad defensive unit was headed towards yet another disappointing season, for a 4th straight year.

But then, lo and behold: the defense essentially "woke up".

The unit was absolutely outstanding in their Week #3 win over the Panthers, as the Saints "D" intercepted QB Cam Newton three times and forced him to lose a fumble in a 34-13 road win over then-unbeaten Carolina at their home stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

That was then followed by them pitched a shutout in an Oct. 1 win over the Dolphins in London, England; before they returned home after their Bye Week and scored 3 touchdowns and forced 5 turnovers in their 52-38 Week #6 win over the Lions at the Superdome.

In the past 5 games, the Saints’ defense has had 11 takeaways; and the increase in forcing turnovers has been the biggest reason for their success. But perhaps even more impressive than the numbers and stats that they've been putting up: playing with a notable attitude, or a "swagger".

That sudden and rather abrupt "attitude adjustment" that they've made with regard to how CONFIDENTLY they've been playing so far this season, may be THE most unexpected thing that we ever thought we'd see from this 2017 Saints team; and the God's honest truth is: we'd like to be "surprised" even more for the rest of the season......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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