The New Orleans Saints experienced a surprising, across-the-board regression on defense last season. And despite flashes of effectiveness, the unit never managed to patch together the kind of consistency that would've allowed New Orleans to win on the days when the offense sputtered.
From No. 4 overall in yards allowed per game (305.7) in 2013 to No. 31 (384) this season, and 194.1 passing yards per game surrendered in '13 to 251.2 in '14, and a 34.7 percent conversion rate allowed on third down last season to 46 percent allowed, the numbers were indicative of a team that slipped from 11-5 and a playoff berth, to 7-9 and elimination.
The myriad injuries, especially in the secondary, didn't help. Three safeties – Jairus Byrd, Rafael Bush and Vinnie Sunseri – wound up on injured reserve and another, Kenny Vaccaro, didn't make the expected improvement on his outstanding rookie season. And the Saints never could find a cornerback opposite Keenan Lewis they felt comfortable with, trying Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Terrence Frederick in the starting lineup without much success.
But in the "next man up" philosophy, the Saints often didn't get the defensive production they sought from the next man, or the first man. The failure to produce critical third- and fourth-down stops was front and center in close losses to Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit and San Francisco – losses that totaled nine points and, collectively, prevented the Saints from winning the NFC South Division.
The slippage this season allowed the performance of linebacker Curtis Lofton (145 tackles, fourth in the league) to be overlooked and overshadowed several stout defensive games, particularly in road victories against division winners Carolina and Pittsburgh.
Key stats and rankings:
384 yards per game allowed, No. 31 overall
251.2 passing yards per game allowed, No. 25
46 percent third-down conversion rate allowed, No. 31
145 tackles by Curtis Lofton, No. 4 in NFL
In a lean defensive year, inside linebacker Curtis Lofton was a rock. He led the team (again) with 145 tackles and was a leader in deed and word. Lofton again played in every game, fending off injuries along the way. On a winning team, he possibly would've been a Pro Bowler.