New Orleans Saints Ready to Rebound from Devastating Playoff Loss
Up one point in Minneapolis, the New Orleans Saints were ten seconds away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game. Then disaster struck.
Rookie safety Marcus Williams whiffed on the most important tackle of the season, allowing Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs to snag the final reception of the game and sprint into the end zone, abruptly ending the Saints’s season.
It was a gut-wrenching ending to the Saints’s best season since the 2013 campaign. Mired in mediocrity with three straight previous 7-9 seasons, the Saints finished 11-5 in the regular season, winning the NFC South for the fourth time in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.
Despite a heartbreaking loss to end last season, the Saints are hoping to build on the momentum from an impressive 2017 campaign, in which several key rookies blossomed from talented youngsters to integral players.
The rushing attack cavalry finally arrived last season in New Orleans, thanks to the two-headed monster of Mark Ingram and sensational rookie Alvin Kamara. The Saints’s dynamic backfield duo alleviated some of the offensive pressure from Brees, allowing New Orleans’s offensive unit a new dimension of versatility.
Kamara tallied over 1,500 combined rushing and receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, en route to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, while Ingram rediscovered his Heisman Trophy form, racking up career highs in rushing yards (1,124) and touchdowns (12).
Despite an illustrious 2017 campaign, Ingram will be watching the Saints’s first four games from the sidelines following a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Sixth-round pick Boston Scott could help fill the void during Ingram’s absence. Once Ingram returns, the Saints offense should be firing on all cylinders again.
Wide receiver Michael Thomas continued his development into one of the league’s marquee receivers, leading the team with 1,245 yards in his second season, and the Saints bolstered the receiving corps by signing former Chicago Bear Cameron Meredith and drafting Tre-Quan Smith in the third round. The Saints brought back a reliable offensive line and upgraded the tight end position with the return of Benjamin Watson.
Needless to say, Brees will have no shortage of weapons at his disposal to defend the NFC South crown.
After ranking near the bottom of the NFL defensive rankings during the franchise’s trio of mediocre seasons from 2014 to 2016, the Saints’s defense found a recipe for success last year.
New Orleans rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore was a revelation last season, especially after projected starter Delvin Breaux was injured in training camp. Lattimore tallied five interceptions and joined Kamara in the postseason award circuit as the Defensive Rookie of the Year. More importantly, the rookie helped the Saints finish seventh in the NFL in opponent passer rating.
Lattimore and fellow rookie Marcus Williams (pictured above) were key cogs in shoring up the Saints shaky secondary. Williams finished second on the team in tackles (59)—yes, one more would have been nice—and interceptions (4), playing safety alongside leading tackler (62) Vonn Bell.
The resurgence of the secondary allowed New Orleans’s front seven to wreak more havoc than usual. Defensive end Cam Jordan had a career year in 2017, terrorizing opposing offenses and racking up 13 sacks and 48 tackles. The X-factor this season is rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport. The Saints traded up from No. 27 to snag Davenport at No. 14 in this year’s draft because of the immense potential the former Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year displayed in college. On paper, Davenport’s measurables are eye-popping. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds and with a 4.58 40-yard dash time, the former UT San Antonio prospect has the makings of a high-caliber NFL pass rusher. His development, and how well defensive end Alex Okafor rebounds from his 2017 Achilles injury, will be key for New Orleans’s pass rush attack this season.
There are plenty of familiar faces returning to the Saints special teams unit this season. Punter Thomas Morstead, last seen making a touchdown-saving tackle in the NFC Divisional Playoffs while suffering a rib injury, returns after signing a five-year contract extension in the offseason. Morstead’s yards per punt (47) and net average (42.2) both ranked in the top ten of the league last year. Kicker Wil Lutz connected on 31-of-36 field goals in 2017, upping his field goal percentage to 86 percent, four points higher than his rookie season, and notched 47-of-50 PATs. The Saints return game will likely once again feature a combination Ted Ginn, Jr., Tommylee Lewis, Alvin Kamara, and Trey Edmunds.
The Saints return with the majority of key personnel from last year’s NFC South championship squad and will need all hands on deck to navigate one of the toughest schedules in the league. In addition to the always-tenacious NFC South foes, the Saints’s schedule features road games at Dallas and a revenge-game at Minnesota, along with home matchups against the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Philadelphia Eagles, the defending Super Bowl champions. Factor in three straight road games, following the tilt against Atlanta on Thanksgiving, and the Saints have a gauntlet of a schedule to overcome if they want to make consecutive playoff trips for the first time since the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
The Saints reestablished themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders last season, but the franchise certainly has a bad taste in its mouths after the demoralizing playoff loss. Great teams learn from adversity to rebound and improve, moving forward, and the Saints are poised to take the next step towards claiming the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.
New Orleans: 11-5, NFC South Champions, NFC Championship Game