Saints' defense deserves its own scrutiny for 1-2 start

METAIRIE, La. -- While Drew Brees has been under the microscope during the New Orleans Saints’ first two-game losing streak in three years, the team's defense has probably been even more of a culprit in both losses.

The Saints (1-2) have allowed 71 points in the past two weeks -- the second-highest total in the NFL. And their opponents have now scored points on 13 of the past 16 drives, not including the end of half or end of games.

Saints coach Sean Payton was so frustrated by Aaron Rodgers’ success on play-action passes in Sunday night’s 37-30 loss to the Green Bay Packers that he said, “Honestly, we looked like a high school team defending the bootleg the other night, and that was kind of embarrassing.”

Things won’t get any easier for the Saints’ defense on Sunday in Detroit if No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore and defensive end Marcus Davenport aren’t able to play or are limited. Lattimore was limited with a hamstring injury in Wednesday’s practice, then didn’t practice at all Thursday. Davenport also missed Thursday’s practice with a new toe injury in addition to the nagging elbow injury that sidelined him for the first three games.

Regardless of who is on the field, the Saints need to find more consistency and discipline.

For better and worse, the Saints’ defensive issues have been all over the map this year instead of having one glaring deficiency. Some problems have been consistent -- such as New Orleans' whopping total of nine pass-interference penalties for 183 yards. But it has mostly been a rotating variety of ailments.

"I feel like we're progressing. And at the same time, we're not growing fast enough,” said defensive end Cameron Jordan -- a first- or second-team All-Pro in each of the past three seasons who is still looking for his first sack in 2020. “When you have two losses, that's something that is a direct reflection of how we're growing as a team. And that's something that we hate to have as a stain in our record.

“We sit at 1-2 when I think we have the potential to be great. We've got to be able to capture each and every opportunity we can."

The one thing the Saints have still been able hang their hats on this season is a standout run defense, led by All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis. Since the start of the 2018 season, New Orleans has allowed a league-low 87.0 rushing yards per game.

As for everything else, here is a look at some of the most pressing concerns -- and how likely it is that they can be fixed in a hurry.

Massive penalty totals

The Saints lead the league with 17 defensive penalties for 261 yards this year. In fact, they have given up more yards in defensive penalties than any other NFL team has accumulated in total penalties on offense, defense and special teams combined.

Those PI calls have obviously been the biggest culprit, and just about everyone in the starting lineup has contributed -- including two each from Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams and three from cornerback Janoris Jenkins.

“Talent really doesn’t get you much in this league on paper -- especially when you’re as undisciplined as we’ve been playing, mainly on defense. Whether it’s been penalties, assignments here or there,” said Malcolm Jenkins, who acknowledged that the Saints brought him back as a free agent from Philadelphia this year specifically to help clean up such issues.

“For me, personally, I feel like that was what I was brought here to do,” Jenkins said. “So up to this point, I feel like I’ve been failing in that regard. But I think it’s definitely something between myself and other team leaders on defense can get fixed.”

Jordan’s quiet start

Jordan has gone three straight games without a sack plenty of times in his career. Interestingly, though, he has not gone four straight games without a sack since his rookie season in 2011. So he is due Sunday.

Jordan also has just one quarterback hit, three QB pressures and two QB hurries, according to NFL NextGen Stats, while the entire Saints defense ranks in the middle of the NFL pack with seven sacks, 26 pressures and 18 hurries.

Obviously, the 6-foot-4, 287-pounder gets a ton of attention with double-teams and chips -- which really isn’t anything new. But he has “won” only one pass rush against double-teams this year for a win rate of 6.3%, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, compared to his win rate of 12.3% against double-teams in the past three years.

“At the end of the day, there's no such thing as excuses,” said Jordan, who also blamed himself for jumping offside twice this year. “We all know, I'm going to be double-teamed, we all know that. There's going to be nudges, chips, god help whatever it is. I gotta have a way to overcome. And at the same time, if I'm getting double-teamed, that means somebody's getting a single, and we have to overcome as a defense.

“Those offsides, [that’s] just the overeagerness of trying to make a play. The name of the game is, ‘Do your job.’ If you try and do more, you put yourself in a position to be an irritant to your defense. ... That’s something that I take personally. So I have to eliminate those mistakes ASAP.”

It would help if Davenport can return from the nagging elbow injury that has sidelined him for the first three games. The 2018 first-round pick was expected to return this week, but then he went from a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice to absent on Thursday. It’s unclear if that means he suffered a setback or he remains close to a return.

Coverage breakdowns

The Saints’ secondary was actually a strength in their Week 1 victory over Tampa Bay, when they held Tom Brady to 239 yards and intercepted him twice -- including a pick-six by Janoris Jenkins.

Then, in Week 2 at Las Vegas, their biggest problem was failing to find an answer for tight end Darren Waller, who caught 12 passes for 105 passes and a touchdown. (No other TE has caught more than nine passes in a NFL game this year).

In Week 3, it was an all-new problem when Packers receiver Allen Lazard broke free behind the defense for catches of 72 and 48 yards.

The common theme has been the lack of discipline, whether it be the penalties or the biting on bootleg fakes against both the Packers and Raiders. The Saints are tied for the NFL lead with five TD passes allowed on play-action throws, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

But Malcolm Jenkins said the defense was actually encouraged once the “dust settled” from that Packers game and they went back and watched the tape -- because they feel like the issues are correctable.

“We felt like we played with more energy and played faster than we did the week before. And there were definitely improvements. But there were five, six plays where we didn't have much discipline; we didn't do things that we wanted to do when against a really good team and good quarterback,” Jenkins said. “I think the biggest thing we see is the communication. And just making sure for 80 plays, 90 plays, whatever it is that we ... don’t have these five, six plays that got away from us.”

The other encouraging thing? The Saints have a ton of talent in their secondary, starting with Lattimore, who is widely regarded as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.

Lattimore has acknowledged in the past that his biggest issue is consistency and allowing himself to slack sometimes when he isn’t facing a premier receiver. With Packers star Davante Adams out on Sunday night, Lazard got behind Lattimore for the 48-yarder.

That shouldn’t be a problem going forward, however. Depending on when Lattimore returns from the hamstring injury, the upcoming schedule includes the likes of Kenny Golladay, Keenan Allen, D.J. Moore, Allen Robinson and his favorite rival, Mike Evans, in consecutive games.

Run defense still stout

The one thing the Saints’ defense can still hang its hat on is its run defense, which has been the NFL’s best since the start of the 2018 season -- allowing just 87.0 rushing yards per game in that span. And they have extended their NFL-best streak of 46 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher despite tough matchups against Josh Jacobs and Aaron Jones the past two weeks.