P.J. Williams is old enough to remember when the New Orleans Saints pass defense hemorrhaged yards (4,755 in ’15 and 4,593 the next year, a net average of 278.9 per game), touchdowns (45 in ’15, 27 in ‘16) and a dizzying completion percentage (a combined 66.6 for the two years).
“It’s a total difference, like night and day,” the fifth-year cornerback said of his first and second NFL seasons.
From that night, to this day: In the last seven games, New Orleans has allowed 205.1 yards per game, with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions, at a completion percentage of 58.5. For the season, New Orleans is allowing 233 yards per game and a 60.6 percent completion rate, with opponents totaling 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
But it’s the last seven games in which New Orleans, 8-2 entering Sunday’s game against Carolina (5-5) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, has produced some of the best pass defense in the league.
“We’ve been getting better every day stopping the run, containing the pass, making sure we’re not giving up explosive plays,” Williams said. “Our numbers just a few years ago – how many explosive passes we gave up and things like that. Those things are huge and we definitely have to (stop explosive plays) to win games.”
New Orleans has won seven of its last eight and during that stretch four opponents totaled less than 200 net passing yards.
“Staying locked in, being assignment-ready and just staying together,” cornerback Eli Apple explained. “More awareness. As the season goes on you want to continue to learn more about your team and continue studying, and just continue to add more stuff to your routine.
“It’s about the challenge. Challenging yourself as a defense and continuing to progress, continuing to get better because when you get closer to playoff time, you want to be playing your best ball. So it’s about challenging yourself to get better.”
The challenge against Tampa Bay last Sunday was to contain one of the high-powered passing offenses in the league, featuring receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. And while Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston completed 30 passes for 298 net yards, he needed 51 attempts to get there, and the Saints intercepted four passes (one each by Williams, safety Marcus Williams, safety Vonn Bell and linebacker Demario Davis), sacked him twice, had 12 passes defensed and 12 quarterback hits.
And they did it without cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017, who arguably was playing the best in his NFL career before a hamstring injury sidelined him Sunday.
Lattimore was instrumental in helping shut out Evans (zero catches) in the first Saints-Buccaneers game this season on Oct. 6.
For the rematch, P.J. Williams was tasked with a heavy dose of shadowing Evans. Evans had four catches for 69 yards, and Williams had three tackles and an end zone interception, ending Tampa Bay’s final scoring threat in New Orleans’ 34-17 victory.
“I was ready for the challenge,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to have that opportunity to go out there and challenge that guy. They told me at the beginning of the week and I made sure I locked in all week to the plan and went out there and executed it.
“It felt good to end the game like that. It was the last play on defense, so just to not let them get a touchdown, and also a turnover in the red zone, that’s a huge stat for our defense.”
But it’s becoming more routine this season for the Saints to construct a pass defense plan, and execute it, than not, partly because the secondary challenges each other almost as much as the opponent challenges it.
“We’re competitive,” Apple said. “Everybody talks about the production and stuff. That’s what we always want to continue to make a point of, continue to get more interceptions and pass breakups and just seeing routes before they happen. Picking up that awareness. It’s one of those things everybody is trying to help each other, and ultimately help the team.”