While future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees garnered most of the attention during the Saints 43-19 blow-out win over the Washington Redskins this past Monday Night, the most impressive part of the Saints' 4th straight victory might have been the improved play of the New Orleans defense.
It was only a month ago when that same group got embarrassed in a Week #1 loss at home in the Superdome to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while allowing 529 yards and six plays of 30 or more yards; as Bucs back-up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick joined former 1990's Redskins QB Mark Rypien (11-10-91 vs. ATL) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards, 4 TD's and zero interceptions while also rushing for a touchdown in a single game.
Then the unit seemed to struggle yet again in a narrow win at home in a Week #2 win over the Browns at home and then again at Atlanta in Week #3; in a game where they gave up 5 more touchdown passes to Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who threw five of his passes on that day to rookie Falcons WR Calvin Ridley for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
In fact, it wasn't until 2 weeks ago that the Saints defensive unit finally began showing some real signs of life in a Week #4 win over the Giants in New York.
But after this Monday Night's win over the Redskins however, it would appear that the unit which was being heavily and very vocally criticized by a rather large portion of the 'Who Dat Nation' fan-base, is starting to heat up after an ice cold start.
As the famous saying goes: "better late than never".
The Saints defense was ALL OVER Redskins QB Alex Smith, as the unit limited the Redskins offense to a grand total of only just 283 yards, and plenty of that came late in the 2nd half with the game well out of hand.
They clearly disrupting his rhythm and timing as they sacked him three times and hit him often (for what seemed to be nearly every single play) in the pocket on plenty of other occasions.
Smith ended up completing 23 of 39 passes for 275 yards and an interception. He also rushed twice for seven yards and a touchdown, but lost a fumble as well.
Any hopes that Smith or the Redskins had of making a comeback was then subsequently wiped out when Saints back-up cornerback Justin Hardee, a special teams ace who was in the game because of starting #1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s second-quarter concussion, stepped in front of Smith’s poorly underthrown pass at the Saints’ 19-yard line and returned his first career pick to the Washington 4-yard line before he ran out of gas.
It was the type of big play on defense that the Saints made often last season during the height of their success, and it’s a great sign going forward for the defensive unit after their notable early-season struggles in the first few games, despite their winning record.
That's a fact that isn't lost on members of the Saints defense, including Saints rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport; who has slowly began to show the pass-rushing capabilities that led team brass to trade up for him back during the 2018 NFL Draft a few months ago.
Davenport notched a sack against Smith and pressured him on what seemed to be every other offensive snap for Washington; and he told reporters in the locker room afterwards that the unit wants and hopes to accomplish much more going forward.
"It’s real fun. We were talking about what we did not do", said Davenport.
"We were kind of upset. We want to stop more plays. Now, we are going to go back to the drawing board and enjoy this one for 24 hours.”
As most Saints fans will remember, the Black and Gold started slowly on defense last season too, then turned it around a few weeks in. Maybe that’s happening again right now as we speak, as the unit begins to establish its own unique identity for this season while hoping to see more of the overall improvement that we saw last season.
Two weeks ago when the Saints held the Giants and QB Eli Manning to 18 points, the narrative after the win was that the unit's success was a lot more about the notable failures of the Giants' offense and probably less about the Saints' defense.
But after their strong performance against the Redskins on Monday night, it would appear that the Saints' defense is slowly but surely turning back into the play-making and opportunistic unit that it was a year ago.
Their performance the other night against the Redskins was very reminiscent of the same version of the Saints defense that so many fans fell in love with a year ago — which was the exact reason why New Orleans (now 4-1) was one of the popular picks to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, at the beginning of the season.
Should Saints fans still remain worried about the defense as the team enters into their Bye Week before their next game on the road against the Baltimore Ravens a week from this Sunday (October 21st)?
Based on past team history, you would have to think that it probably would be considered a pretty smart idea.
But nevertheless: if the Saints defense can continue to improve over the course of their remaining 11 games of the 2018 Regular Season and become even just a "middle of the road" to average-rated unit by the end of the season, the Saints along with Brees and the high-powered New Orleans offensive attack will certainly be a team that nobody in the entire League will want to face during the Playoffs.
As Davenport observed: "I always look to improve. I know that’s the same way with my teammates. That’s our mindset. We know that we need to get better".
From the outside looking in, one could likely make the strong argument that the Saints aren't as loaded on both sides of the ball as the conference's top team, the currently undefeated (5-0) Los Angeles Rams are; but the Saints can quickly make up some ground on L.A. (who they will play at the Superdome on November 4th) if the defense is truly beginning to get back to the level / caliber of play that they demonstrated last year.
Managing to still pull off a winning (4-1) record through the first five games even when the Saints defense hasn’t played all that well, is a great advantage for New Orleans to have moving forward.
And if the Saints defense can show that they're finally beginning to heat up following an ice cold start to the season for the first 5 games, it could make for some exciting times in NOLA come January....