How Davis, Jenkins Can Get Saints Back to Playoffs

New Orleans Saints LB Demario Davis
New Orleans Saints LB Demario Davis
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

While most of the coffee-and-chicory talk in the French Quarter this offseason has focused on the duel between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston to replace Drew Brees, it's the changes on defense that may ultimately decide New Orleans' fate in 2021. Salary cap issues cost the Saints several key defensive contributors, but they have retained stars such as Demario Davis and Malcolm Jenkins whose versatility may get them back to the postseason.

It may surprise some to learn that the Saints were a defense-first team in 2020, ranking higher in DVOA on defense than offense for the first time since 2010. That was fueled in part by a pass defense that finished third in DVOA and played better as it got more aggressive. They were just 22nd in DVOA when using fewer than four pass-rushers, but that hardly mattered because they didn't use that strategy very often, only 11% of the time. Like all teams, though, they used four-man rushes more often than not, and they were excellent there, ranking fourth in DVOA. And when they blitzed, they were dominant—no team had a better DVOA when using exactly five pass-rushers, and only the Washington Football Team fared better when you include big blitzes of six or more pass-rushers. The Saints finished in the top five in DVOA on defensive back blitzes to boot.

Dennis Allen has been New Orleans' defensive coordinator since 2015. He likes to load up on defensive backs (the Saints were in the top five in usage of dime personnel last season, but just 29th in base usage) and mix up his blitzes (the Saints ranked between eighth and 20th in three-, four-, and five-man rushes last season, as well as big blitzes and defensive back blitzes) to keep offenses off balance. And he loves man coverage—New Orleans used man coverage 47% of the time last season, the highest rate in the league. They also led the league with 40% of their defensive back targets being thrown at their safeties, in large part because second-year man Chauncey Gardner-Johnson split time between safety and slot corner. It's a combative scheme that often forces opposing quarterbacks to attempt tight-window throws under the menace of a heavy pass rush.

And it's a scheme that is going to be tested, because Allen's personnel has undergone a lot of turnover in recent months. Trey Hendrickson, who led the team with 13.5 sacks, signed with the Bengals in free agency. The interior line also lost two of its top three players as Sheldon Rankins joined the Jets and Malcolm Brown was traded to Jacksonville. Alex Anzalone, a linebacker who was on the field more than half the time, moved on to Detroit, while starting corner Janoris "Jackrabbit" Jenkins signed with the Titans. That's five big holes left in the New Orleans lineup, and linebacker Kwon Alexander nearly made it an even half-dozen before re-signing in early August.

The Saints tried to fill those holes in the draft, using their first three selections on Houston edge rusher Payton Turner, Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner, and Stanford corner Paulson Adebo. They're also counting on some young veterans to step up, most notably Marcus Davenport, who has a disappointing total of 12.0 sacks since New Orleans gave up two first-round picks to draft him in 2018. They can also count on pass rush from some established stars. That starts with reliable edge rusher Cam Jordan—in the last five years, only Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones have more sacks. You'll recall, however, that the Saints were most effective when they were blitzing, and those blitzes had to come from somewhere. We have previously noted that Demario Davis was the top linebacker in pass coverage last season, but he was also first at the position with 19 hurries. It's hard to believe one player could be so effective on either end of a pass attempt, but Davis has been underrated for a while now. He was not New Orleans' only effective blitzer, however—Malcolm Jenkins had 14 hurries in his first season back in the Big Easy, second-most among defensive backs.

If New Orleans does make it back to the postseason this fall, it will likely be those names—Allen, Jordan, Davis, and Jenkins—leading the way, not Sean Payton or whomever ends up throwing passes on offense.

Small Rushes

The following table lists the results for every defense last season when using fewer than four pass-rushers. All the data in this article removes all plays from the 1- and 2-yard lines, as well as screens/quick ("smoke")/jet sweep passes. They include scrambles and defensive pass interference penalties, but not aborted snaps. Teams are listed by frequency of rushing three or fewer.

Small Rushes, 2020
Team Freq. Pressure Rate DVOA
NE 22.7% 25.0% 32.8%
CAR 20.0% 20.9% 29.1%
NYG 16.9% 11.0% 49.4%
MIA 16.4% 23.7% -32.5%
DET 12.5% 17.4% 14.7%
DAL 12.3% 27.7% 39.3%
HOU 12.0% 18.8% 27.5%
NO 11.4% 21.2% 39.1%
TEN 11.1% 22.4% 59.8%
ATL 9.6% 20.7% 67.8%
SEA 8.4% 17.5% 15.0%
CIN 7.3% 12.8% -16.5%
GB 7.0% 10.3% 23.3%
NYJ 6.8% 27.5% 40.4%
LV 6.4% 27.0% 17.6%
TB 6.3% 15.4% 33.9%
WAS 6.0% 34.4% -13.3%
BAL 5.8% 14.7% -30.5%
PIT 5.1% 17.2% 80.8%
MIN 4.9% 7.7% 66.5%
CHI 4.2% 12.5% 16.6%
ARI 4.2% 28.0% 47.6%
DEN 4.2% 8.3% -20.7%
KC 4.0% 13.0% 26.7%
LAR 3.9% 31.8% 10.7%
LAC 3.5% 21.1% 74.9%
CLE 2.9% 29.4% -60.8%
JAX 2.9% 6.7% 79.4%
SF 2.9% 26.7% -73.5%
IND 2.2% 15.4% 29.0%
BUF 1.2% 42.9% 6.2%
PHI 0.8% 50.0% -86.1%
NFL 7.7% 20.2% 33.8%

Obviously, this is the favorite defensive tactic of House Belichick. Bill Belichick's Patriots routinely use three-man rushes more than most other NFL teams, and they made it to the top of the table in 2020. Belichick disciples Joe Judge, Brian Flores, and Matt Patricia guided the Giants, Dolphins, and Lions to third-, fourth-, and fifth-place finishes.

Carolina finished in second place, and while Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow has never coached with Belichick, he has coached with Matt Rhule every year since 2013, from Temple to Baylor to Carolina. With that kind of stability you'd think he would be set in his ways, but apparently not—the Panthers were next-to-last in three-man rushes in 2019. They finished 12th in pass defense that year, but after adding so many three-man rushes they finished … 23rd in 2020. That's not a big surprise, because most teams fare poorly when using three-man rushes … with one very big exception.

What kind of small-rush magic spells is Brian Flores casting in South Beach?! Miami's small-rush DVOA of -32.5% was 66.3% better than the league average. And that's over 93 plays—not a tiny sample! (The three defenses with better DVOAs in this department—Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Cleveland—called a total of 36 three-man rushes between them.) The Dolphins allowed an average of 6.2 yards per play and a 39% success rate with small-rushes, both the best of the 11 teams that used the tactic at least 50 times.

Four-Man Rushes

Teams that rely on four-man rushes typically have a pair of bookend rushers who are both capable of winning one-on-one matchups and don't need blitzers to help. The Eagles are an exception to that rule—they get a higher share of sacks from their interior linemen than most teams—but they still used more four-man rushes than any other defense in the league.

Teams in the following table are sorted by four-man rush rate.

Four-Man Rushes, 2020
Team Freq. Pressure Rate DVOA
PHI 85.1% 30.9% 17.7%
LAC 83.3% 22.0% 7.7%
IND 82.4% 24.6% -4.9%
CLE 80.2% 24.2% 13.4%
CHI 76.1% 23.0% 6.3%
LV 74.4% 21.8% 28.0%
GB 71.1% 24.6% 6.3%
LAR 71.1% 31.3% -20.9%
MIN 70.9% 18.6% 7.8%
DEN 69.0% 22.4% 11.7%
WAS 67.7% 27.7% -2.3%
BUF 67.5% 23.9% 8.2%
NYG 67.5% 28.1% 2.1%
TEN 67.4% 23.5% 27.0%
DAL 67.3% 25.8% 10.7%
DET 66.7% 20.4% 37.1%
JAX 66.3% 19.8% 28.9%
CIN 66.2% 20.7% 33.7%
SF 65.0% 28.9% -3.2%
NO 62.5% 28.9% -9.9%
CAR 61.1% 29.2% 8.9%
ATL 61.0% 26.1% 11.7%
KC 60.8% 24.9% 9.8%
SEA 60.5% 21.1% 22.2%
NYJ 58.8% 26.2% 27.9%
ARI 58.0% 25.4% 1.8%
TB 56.3% 31.4% -4.8%
PIT 56.1% 30.3% -24.5%
NE 55.9% 30.8% -14.0%
HOU 55.6% 17.6% 35.2%
MIA 54.9% 28.9% 2.0%
BAL 54.3% 26.6% -7.2%
NFL 66.2% 25.2% 14.4%

The Eagles were 20th or lower in percentage of sacks from both edge rushers and second-level players, but they were seventh in percentage of sacks by interior linemen. That includes 6.5 sacks from Fletcher Cox, 4.5 from Javon Hargrave, and 2.5 from Malik Jackson. Mind you, their edge rushers chipped in too—Brandon Graham had 8.0 sacks, Josh Sweat 6.0, Derek Barnett 5.5. Regardless, it's hard to overstate how much Jim Schwartz loves his four-man rushes—the Eagles ranked first in that department while ranking last in small rushes and next to last in blitzes.

By DVOA, the best defense with a four-man rush was a team that didn't actually use the tactic very often: the Pittsburgh Steelers. The worst was a team that struggled pretty badly no matter what scheme they played: the Detroit Lions.

Blitzes

The term "blitz" can be a little hard to define. The following table lists data for five-man rushes as well as those with six or more, but it's sorted by the last group, which totals them together into pass rushes of five or more.

Blitzes, 2020
  Five-Man Rushes Six-Plus Rushers Five-Plus Rushers
Team Freq. Pressure Rate DVOA Freq. Pressure Rate DVOA Freq. Pressure Rate DVOA
BAL 33.2% 32.8% 20.5% 6.6% 48.7% -27.0% 39.9% 35.5% 12.6%
PIT 30.7% 34.3% -13.4% 8.1% 43.5% -42.6% 38.8% 36.2% -19.5%
ARI 28.3% 30.8% -5.1% 9.5% 35.1% -21.3% 37.9% 31.9% -9.2%
TB 29.3% 34.1% 7.6% 8.2% 39.2% -51.8% 37.5% 35.2% -5.4%
KC 20.2% 45.7% -18.0% 15.0% 51.2% 12.2% 35.2% 48.0% -5.2%
NYJ 28.2% 34.5% 9.2% 6.2% 25.0% 33.4% 34.4% 32.8% 13.6%
HOU 27.1% 29.9% 0.3% 5.3% 39.3% 53.3% 32.3% 31.4% 8.9%
SF 23.0% 28.1% 10.3% 9.1% 41.7% -14.9% 32.1% 32.0% 3.1%
BUF 23.1% 36.1% 2.0% 8.2% 38.3% -29.1% 31.3% 36.7% -6.1%
SEA 24.8% 35.5% 10.8% 6.3% 51.2% -3.1% 31.1% 38.7% 8.0%
JAX 24.5% 29.1% 37.9% 6.4% 36.4% 75.7% 30.8% 30.6% 45.7%
ATL 25.7% 33.5% -2.3% 3.6% 31.8% 33.2% 29.4% 33.3% 2.1%
MIA 21.7% 41.5% -7.7% 6.9% 41.0% -13.6% 28.6% 41.4% -9.2%
DEN 21.1% 34.4% -22.5% 5.7% 39.4% -16.7% 26.9% 35.5% -21.3%
CIN 19.4% 27.2% 7.4% 7.1% 26.3% 4.9% 26.5% 27.0% 6.8%
WAS 21.2% 33.6% -29.6% 5.1% 48.1% -133.8% 26.3% 36.4% -49.7%
NO 21.3% 41.1% -43.2% 4.8% 60.7% -2.2% 26.2% 44.7% -35.6%
LAR 22.4% 42.4% -2.5% 2.5% 42.9% 37.6% 25.0% 42.4% 1.6%
MIN 19.4% 27.2% -3.8% 4.9% 38.5% -13.7% 24.2% 29.5% -5.8%
GB 20.0% 28.6% -4.2% 2.0% 45.5% -86.8% 21.9% 30.1% -11.6%
NE 16.0% 39.0% 49.2% 5.5% 42.9% -52.6% 21.5% 40.0% 23.3%
TEN 18.0% 32.4% 16.3% 3.5% 38.1% 28.3% 21.5% 33.3% 18.3%
DET 16.3% 32.2% 51.5% 4.5% 40.0% 7.7% 20.8% 33.9% 41.9%
DAL 18.3% 40.2% 3.5% 2.1% 72.7% -23.8% 20.4% 43.5% 0.7%
CHI 17.5% 28.3% 20.6% 2.1% 58.3% -51.6% 19.6% 31.5% 12.8%
LV 16.4% 39.4% -25.4% 2.8% 25.0% 15.5% 19.2% 37.3% -19.4%
CAR 15.5% 32.9% 24.1% 3.5% 31.6% 17.7% 18.9% 32.7% 22.9%
CLE 14.5% 35.3% 55.5% 2.4% 35.7% 39.5% 16.9% 35.4% 53.2%
NYG 13.9% 32.9% 36.9% 1.7% 80.0% -5.2% 15.6% 38.0% 32.3%
IND 11.1% 31.3% 19.9% 4.3% 36.0% 12.7% 15.4% 32.6% 17.9%
PHI 9.4% 49.0% -13.8% 4.8% 48.0% 48.1% 14.2% 48.6% 7.1%
LAC 10.7% 43.1% 14.8% 2.4% 46.2% -15.9% 13.1% 43.7% 9.2%
NFL 20.8% 34.5% 11.6% 5.4% 41.9% 1.3% 26.2% 36.0% 9.5%

For the second year in a row, Don Martindale's Baltimore Ravens had the highest blitz rate in the league, finishing first in both five-man rushes and total blitzes. However, while they blitzed often, they did not blitz particularly effectively, finishing slightly worse than average in DVOA in both categories. The Chargers had the lowest blitz rate in the league after finishing next to last in 2019; it's a safe bet they'll blitz more often in 2021 now that Melvin Ingram has moved on to the Steelers.

When your offense has Patrick Mahomes, your defense can afford to take lots of chances. Steve Spagnuolo's Chiefs used a big blitz of six or more pass-rushers on 15.0% of plays. Nobody else was close—second-place Arizona was closer to Indianapolis in 21st place than they were to Kansas City. In fact, that was the highest rate for any team since Todd Bowles' New York Jets in 2015. And speaking of New York, it was Joe Judge's Giants with the lowest rate of big blitzes last year at just 1.7%—that's just 10 big blitzes all season.

As noted previously, New Orleans had the best DVOA on five-man rushes, while Washington was best in both big blitzes and all blitzes. The worst defense on big blitzes was Jacksonville, but the worst on five-man rushes and total blitzes was the Cleveland Browns. That's pretty surprising for a team that won a playoff game, but the Browns had a 53.2% DVOA on blitzes as opposed to a 13.4% DVOA on four-man rushes. That's a gap of 39.8%, the highest in the league. The Browns just didn't have the horses in the secondary to survive in obvious one-on-one—that's why they let Terrance Mitchell and Andrew Sendejo go, replacing them with Troy Hill and John Johnson. Two teams—the Washington Football Team and Las Vegas Raiders—were essentially tied for the other end of the scale, with a better DVOA when blitzing. That says a lot about how great Washington's blitzes were … and how weak the Raiders' four-man rush was.

Defensive Back Blitzes

The following table shows all plays where a defensive back blitzed, regardless of the number of pass-rushers. Obviously, these plays will overlap with the numbers we have already discussed. Teams that like to blitz in general are typically the same teams that blitz DBs; the correlation between blitz rate of five or more pass-rushers and blitzing with DBs is 0.657. Defensive blitz data comes from ESPN Stats & Information.

DB Blitzes, 2020
Team Freq. Pressure Rate DVOA
SEA 20.6% 44.3% 5.8%
BUF 19.1% 41.8% -9.0%
KC 18.5% 59.4% -0.7%
BAL 18.2% 41.1% -42.2%
HOU 17.9% 35.8% 4.6%
TB 17.5% 39.4% -45.7%
PIT 16.8% 38.5% -27.0%
ARI 15.7% 29.8% -17.3%
MIA 15.7% 40.4% -8.0%
NYJ 15.2% 34.8% 49.3%
NO 14.5% 45.2% -39.1%
CAR 14.0% 40.3% 12.0%
CIN 13.7% 27.4% 10.9%
SF 13.7% 31.9% -35.8%
TEN 13.6% 35.4% 8.1%
JAX 13.1% 44.1% 42.8%
NYG 12.9% 44.7% 17.7%
NE 12.5% 40.6% 28.9%
CLE 12.4% 47.9% 38.9%
PHI 12.1% 47.6% 4.5%
LV 11.7% 35.8% 10.6%
MIN 10.9% 27.6% 32.9%
WAS 10.7% 42.1% -65.4%
ATL 10.3% 37.1% 5.7%
GB 10.2% 43.9% -2.7%
LAC 9.1% 44.9% 9.5%
DET 8.3% 39.1% 49.1%
IND 8.3% 37.5% 16.5%
LAR 7.2% 37.5% -26.6%
DEN 7.1% 36.6% -28.3%
DAL 5.7% 60.0% -47.2%
CHI 5.7% 40.6% 33.4%
NFL 13.0% 40.4% 3.6%

If you're reading this, you're probably aware that Jamal Adams set a defensive back record with 9.5 sacks last season, so it's no surprise that the Seahawks finished first in DB blitz rate. That rate, however, was not historically high—just last year, the Ravens blitzed a defensive back 28.4% of the time. And those blitzes didn't always go Seattle's way; their DVOA on DB blitzes was actually worse than average.

Two teams were effectively tied for the lowest DB blitz rate. For the record, Dallas used a DB blitz 5.67% of the time, just a little more often than Chicago (5.65%). By raw numbers, however, Chicago called 32 DB blitzes while Dallas only called 30.

Washington, the best defense on big blitzes, was also the best defense on DB blitzes. Kamren Curl, Landon Collins, Jeremy Reaves, and Jimmy Moreland combined for 5.5 sacks on just 32 plays. The Jets were last in DVOA on DB blitzes. Turns out that blitzes out of the secondary are a bad tactic after you have traded away Jamal Adams.

Comments

7 comments, Last at 19 Aug 2021, 2:47pm

1 Shocked

I am shocked, shocked I tell you, that a Raider scheme that yielded a DVOA of over -19% and chose to use it…only 19% of the time.

Also, any idea on how NWE was third in DVOA and pressure rate on four man rushes, with such a decimated defense?  Aside from Belichek black magic?

2 We joke about "Belichick…

In reply to by Raiderfan

We joke about "Belichick Black Magic", but one thing his teams are known for is discipline and attention to detail. Those two things help mask the lack of talent. If you know where to be and can trust the other players around you in the scheme, then you can play sound defense, even with subpar talent.

3 They will often put 7+ guys…

In reply to by Raiderfan

They will often put 7+ guys up close to the line of scrimmage even though they’re only rushing 4, which creates some ambiguity about exactly which 4 will be rushing.

Obviously that doesn’t account for 100% of their success, but bluffing cover zero historically works pretty well if you have DBs that can actually pull off cover zero. 

5 I think you can credit…

In reply to by Raiderfan

I think you can credit Belichick for a lot of that, but usually when a team is better with a four-man rush than with blitzing, it means their pass-rushers are better than their defensive backs. They got a lot of hurries from Chase Winovich, Deatrich Wise, and Adam Butler -- perhaps those guys are better players than they get credit for.

6 Does your charting data…

Does your charting data include whether it was a “traditional” 4 man rush vs a stunt/twist/“more exotic” 4 man rush? It seems, anecdotally, that the Pats will stunt often and stick with it if it’s working, but I definitely don’t watch enough games to have any sort of context around how often it’s being done league-wide. 

4 CLE should improve a lot…

CLE should improve a lot defensively this season, based solely on how much better the blitzes will be with a secondary that can cover people.