Check out photos from the Saints locker room celebration after the win over the Buccaneers.
A six-game New Orleans Saints winning streak barely has allowed us time to catch our collective breath, but the midpoint of the season means we can slow down long enough for a few midseason awards.
Possibly, there wouldn't be a voice of dissent if Alvin Kamara's name was stamped on this one. The rookie running back is a candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and his versatility has been everything the Saints could have imagined, if not more. He has run for 311 yards and three touchdowns on 52 carries, has caught 37 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns, and leads the team in touchdowns. He has been a first-round value in a third-round pick. Also, collectively, the offensive line is a worthy nominee because it has been amazing: three players have played at left tackle, three have played at left guard, three have played at right tackle and two have played at right guard in the first eight games. The guess here is that no line has handled injury and in-game adversity more smoothly. But The Man here is quarterback Drew Brees. Quietly, Brees is having one of the most efficient seasons of his Hall of Fame career. He's completing 71.6 percent of his passes (197 of 275) and that pace would top his career high of 71.2 in 2011. He only has thrown four interceptions, which puts him on pace for eight; his career low for a season is seven, in 2004. Aided by a defense that is forcing turnovers and keeping opponents out of the end zone, Brees hasn't needed to take as many risks as in previous seasons and the result is that while his offense hasn't been as explosive, it has been plenty effective.
This one is a challenge. Safety Kenny Vaccaro (team-leading three interceptions, a half-sack, seven passed defensed, a fumble recovery for a touchdown and 39 tackles) is having a Pro Bowl season. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore (two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, along with a forced fumble, 31 tackles and eight passes defensed) has given the Saints a No. 1 corner with shutdown ability. Teams aren't targeting him and when they do, they're coming up empty; his coverage, no doubt, fueled Tampa Bay's rage and led to the Buccaneers targeting him after a play, with Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston pushing Lattimore and Bucs receiver Mike Evans tackling him after Lattimore responded to Winston's push with a shove of his own. He's looking like the Defensive Rookie of the Year. But if defensive end Cameron Jordan isn't in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, then the conversation should cease and restart. Jordan (a team-leading seven sacks, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles, an interception for a touchdown and 38 tackles) has been loosed to wreak havoc, partly because of the Saints' improved secondary and partly because of the pressure being applied on the other side by defensive end Alex Okafor. He's the heart and soul of the Saints defense, has been its best player for the past several seasons and he's basking in the spotlight now.
Honestly, Thomas Morstead is as good as any punter in the business. Of his 27 punts this season, nearly half (13) have been downed inside the 20 and his net average (41.6) suffers only because the Saints allowed a 74-yard punt return touchdown against Detroit. Otherwise, his work has been as phenomenal as it always seems to be.
It's Lattimore, and for all the reasons we previously mentioned in his candidacy for Defensive MVP. How in the world did he fall to No. 11 in the first round? Kamara also would be a worthy choice, for all the reasons we mentioned in his consideration for Offensive MVP. But also, a high honorable mention for offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who had to be a starter at left tackle from the beginning of the season, and admirably played that position and right tackle – he once played both positions in the same game, due to injury. And like Lattimore and Kamara, hasn't been swallowed by the moment. He has made the Brandin Cooks trade look very, very good for the Saints.
Not only did Ken Crawley not start the first two games; the second-year cornerback was inactive. He stepped off the inactive list and into the starting lineup in the third game because of injuries, and a starting job has been his ever since. Sure, there has been a holding penalty and a pass interference or two, but all in all, Crawley (an interception, seven passes defensed and 27 tackles) has been a major contributor to a secondary that has contested throws and challenged receivers. He's a big reason that the Saints' have settled down defensively and have put together an outstanding string of defensive performances during the team's six-game winning streak.
In Week 3, the winless Saints traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to take on the unbeaten Panthers at Bank of America Stadium – after having seen the defense shredded for 1,025 yards and 65 points against Minnesota and New England, and having watched the offense sputter en route to scoring just 39 points in the two losses. Carolina hadn't surrendered a touchdown in the first two games and the Saints hadn't seriously pressured a quarterback, let alone forced a turnover. But with its back against the wall, New Orleans created a masterpiece: three interceptions and four sacks of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, 288 yards allowed, 34 points scored (including two 75-yard touchdown drives) and 149 rushing yards against a Panthers defense that had been dominant the first two games.
The play-by-play – A. Kamara right end pushed ob at DET 2 for 14 yards (A. Robinson) – doesn't do it justice. Not when Kamara hurdled Lions cornerback Darius Slay during the run. Slay had Kamara sized up and was prepared to make a tackle, but the rookie became a high hurdler – Slay is 6 feet, and nearly was standing upright as Kamara somehow lifted his lead and trail leg over him – in order to gain another five yards or so. That run led to a touchdown and it was one that is on the opening page of Kamara's expanding resume. Hear Lolo Jones' take >>
Jordan flirted with an end zone interception in the season opener, which would have ended a Minnesota drive and kept points off the board. He and linebacker A.J. Klein collided while in pursuit and knocked each other away as the ball fell to the turf. It was a pivotal play in that game because it was a huge swing; the Vikings wound up scoring a touchdown just before halftime, and their 10-6 lead became a 16-6 lead. Jordan didn't miss on his next chance, though. In a wildly entertaining game against Detroit, with the Lions passing from their own end zone, Jordan batted Matthew Stafford's pass attempt to himself and caught it in the end zone, the final points in a 52-38 victory in which the Lions scored 28 consecutive points in the second half to close to within 45-38.
The Saints don't block many punts but it seems that when they do, it happens in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they score a touchdown off it and it leads to victory. Defensive back Justin Hardee was the producer this season, blocking a first-quarter punt against Tampa Bay, picking it up and scoring from seven yards out to give the Saints a 9-0 lead and electrify the Dome. Steve Gleason did the honors in 2006 (Curtis Deloatch provided the scoop-and-score) and Michael Mauti was the one-man act in 2015, when he blocked the punt and recovered for a touchdown against Atlanta.