Saints defense ready to carry whatever load is needed

Published 10:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2022

By John DeShazier

New Orleans Saints

METARIE, La —Demario Davis signed with the New Orleans Saints as an unrestricted free agent in 2018 in large part because quarterback Drew Brees helmed one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and Davis never had played with a quarterback and offense that had been as accomplished and effective, one that ranked in the top nine in yards per game for 14 straight seasons, from 2006-19.

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Five seasons later it wouldn’t at all be a surprise if, in large part, the reason free agents signed up to join the Saints is because of the resume Davis and the defense have constructed under Coach Dennis Allen, who served as defensive coordinator from 2015-21.

Of course, New Orleans expects its offense to produce, beginning with Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Quarterback Jameis Winston is healthy after tearing his left ACL in the seventh game last season. Receiver Michael Thomas, the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019, expect to be ready and healthy for the first time since that season, and he’ll be joined by newcomers Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave at the position. The offensive line appears settled, despite the injury to rookie left tackle Trevor Penning. And running back Alvin Kamara is prepared to make everything right if everything is wrong, or even better if it’s operating at peak efficiency.

But the identity of the team currently is linked to the unit charged with stopping the opponent, the one that led New Orleans to a 9-8 record last season, when the team went through four starters at quarterback, four kickers, no snaps from Thomas (ankle surgery and rehab) and an NFL-record 58 starters.

“I wouldn’t say I foresaw that time coming,” Davis said. “I’m kind of a one-day-at-a-time type of guy. I do like to think down the road, but I wasn’t looking for a day where the defense was the mainstay.

“I felt like I could add a lot of value to this team and play a role that would help us ascend, as I saw it was a high-powered offense and it needed kind of a boost on defense. And coming in doing my job, we’ve had a ton of success, me just being a component of a much larger picture. And in a lot of ways, that has lent itself to us becoming a dominant force in the NFL.

“So now, I don’t look at us necessarily as a defensive-led team, because it’s always been three components. That was the first thing I learned when I came here. It was a high-powered offense, but you’ve got to play the game in front of you. Sometimes the game is going to require the offense to have a great day, sometimes it’s going to require the defense to have a great day. Sometimes it’s going to be even and you need the special teams to make the difference. I still believe in that now. That was something I learned when I arrived.

“(But) it’s fortunate that we’ve been able to put together a dominant force, a dominant unit. But we have to play like that each and every week. That’s our responsibility.”

The responsibility, in the Saints’ first season without Brees since 2005, looked like this: 19.7 points per game allowed (fourth fewest in the NFL); 318.2 yards per game allowed (seventh); 18 interceptions (tied for fifth most); 46 sacks (eighth); and 93.5 rushing yards allowed, fourth fewest and aligned with the work from previous seasons (80.2 in 2018, 91.4 in ’19 and 93.9 in ’20).

“We’re just an energy and effort type of defense,” Davis said. “We’re going to play with a ton of energy, swagger, whatever you want to call it – we’re going to play with a ton of excitement and we’re going to put every effort toward studying our opponent, being prepared for our opponent, and bringing that physicality for four quarters. Until they’ve had enough, or don’t wanna play no more.

“And that’s just our mentality when we step out there. We just put the work in. We’ve got a week of work to put in and when we get inside the lines, we’ll let that speak for itself.”

What they’ve been able to do has spoken loudly, even to the highly-decorated newcomers, like safety Tyrann Mathieu, a three-time All-Pro who signed as a free agent this offseason.

“Early (Monday), (defensive end) Cam (Jordan) addressed the defense as a unit and he was kind of walking us through that,” Mathieu said. “I guess he was a part of some bad defenses.

“And I think ever since Dennis Allen came here, it kind of shifted a bit. I think that’s what a lot of these guys pride themselves on, not really worrying about what the offense does or what the special teams does. I think defensively, I feel like and I think a lot of these guys feel like, we can go out there and impact every game and possibly win it.”

PENNING UPDATE: Allen said Monday that there was hope that Penning, whom he described as having a serious toe injury, would be able to return and play at some point this season. Penning sustained the injury in the preseason finale, against the Chargers. “He’s going to work extremely hard to try to get back out here,” Allen said. “We’ll just have to see.”