Familiarity isn’t breeding contempt. For the New Orleans Saints defense, it’s breeding confidence.
True, the unit totally didn’t return intact from last season. Free agent departures (defensive tackle Tyeler Davison and defensive end Alex Okafor) and an injury absence (defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who ruptured his Achilles in the playoffs), plus a pair of free agent signees (defensive tackle Malcom Brown and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.) and draft picks (safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquan Hampton, and linebacker Kaden Elliss) ensured new blood.
But largely, the group is one that has a vastly better understanding of how to move as one, as it enters another year in defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s system.
Cornerback Eli Apple sees it. He had a crash course in 2018, after being traded to New Orleans during the season (Apple played five games with the Giants, then the final 10 regular-season games, and both playoff games, with the Saints). He said that having the playbook in his hands the entire offseason has helped him better understand the principles and responsibilities.
“Everybody has definitely been doing a good job communicating, making great plays, flying around,” Apple said. “Great energy out there so far.”
That has helped lead to a level of competitiveness that’s at a fever pitch, even during OTAs. Whether it has been receiver Michael Thomas reaching around Apple to catch a back-shoulder pass from Drew Brees – and celebrating by tossing a chest pass to Apple – or tight end Josh Hill catching a pass in front of linebacker Demario Davis, who never gave up on the play and stripped out the ball after several steps of pursuit, the walking has matched the talking.
"I love to compete,” safety Marcus Williams said. “We all love to compete, each and every one of us. That’s what brings the best out of each other. We don’t come in here trying to be timid. We have to come in here and compete, or else we’re just going to be the same.”
“We’ve got good offense, good defense,” Allen said. “We’re battling back and forth and that’s kind of the sign of a good team. That’s what this time of year is all about, understanding how to compete and how to work against one another.”
For the Saints, not much could be better than seeing the defense hold its own against one of the most formidable offenses in NFL history. The strides gained in May and June, during OTAs and minicamp, are steps that the defense hopes will result in improvement once the season begins in September.
“We talked at the beginning of the offseason program, we’ve got to get better in terms of our pass defense,” Allen said. New Orleans ranked 29th in pass defense last year in the regular season, allowing 268.9 yards per game, with 12 interceptions against 30 touchdown passes. The Saints allowed 14 completions of 40-plus yards, tied for second most in the league.
“That’s an area that we’ve got to improve on, and certainly, getting off to a faster start would help us in doing that,” Allen said. “But these guys, for the most part – we’re into years two, three and four into the system, and hopefully they’ve got a better understanding of what they’re being asked to do and how teams are attacking us, so that we’re able to kind of prepare for that and anticipate, rather than having to react all the time.”
That success partially would be predicated on a good front, and Allen is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“You don’t want to get too high or too low during this time of the year,” he said. “This is really still the beginning process of understanding what we’re going to do and what we’re going to be as a team.
“This defense will be different than the team that we had last year, there’ll be some new pieces, there’ll be some new things that we’ll try to incorporate. That’s what this time of the year is. You get excited when you see some positive play, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
The familiarity makes the journey appear shorter.
“A lot of maturity on the back end now,” Williams explained. “The whole defense, to be honest. We’re all molding, coming together and it feels like we’re going to get things going a lot quicker, a lot faster. Hit the ground running.”