The typical turkey on television or radio is incapable of analyzing football teams beyond a handful of headline-making players on offense: the 40-year-old gunslinger quarterback, the fumble-prone runner, the loudmouthed wide receiver.
These players win all the awards, score all the touchdowns, date all the starlets, marry all the supermodels, do all the Oreo commercials and gain all the attention from the media.
But they also divert attention away from defenses and away from what are often bigger on-the-field stories — to the point that it seems that many observers forget that defenses even exist.
The 2009 Saints, New England’s opponent in a big-time “Monday Night Football” showdown this week, represent a textbook example of a team that’s largely misunderstood because our fixation on offense.
Everybody knows that Drew Brees puts up gaudy numbers for the high-powered New Orleans offense. But actually, the team’s dependence upon him has declined noticeably this year.
•Brees averaged 40 attempts and 317 yards per game in 2008.
•Brees averages 32 attempts and 275 yards per game in 2009.
What has changed in New Orleans is a spectacular improvement in its pass defense, from middle of the pack last year to easily the best in football this year. This meteoric rise would be the biggest story in football this year if pigskin “pundits” devoted the same kind of attention to defense that they do to offense.
There’s some debate over the best passing offense in football this year. Minnesota, Indy, New Orleans, even New England, can all make a claim.
But there’s no debate about who boasts the best pass defense in football. It belongs to the Saints and to future Hall of Fame safety Darren Sharper, who should garner MVP honors from the Cold, Hard Football Facts at the end of the year. (We have no faith that anybody else will see the light and make a defender MVP.)
The Saints are very good on offense this year. No doubt. They’re No. 1 in total offense (420.5) and No. 1 in scoring offense (36.9), ahead of the No. 2 New England (416.1 YPG) and No. 2 Minnesota (30.6 PPG) in each category. In fact, they’re still on pace to break New England’s 2007 record as the highest-scoring team in modern football history (36.8 PPG).
But the Saints are spectacular on pass defense this season. It’s the New Orleans pass defense that’s making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. It’s the New Orleans defense that’s most responsible for the team’s rise from 8-8 and last place in the NFC South last year to 10-0 and No. 1 in the NFC this year. It’s the New Orleans pass defense that gives the Saints a double-edged sword that the Patriots did not possess in 2007.
And it’s the New Orleans defense that will make the Monday night donnybrook the most compelling statistical clash of the 2009 season and that poses the biggest challenge that Tom Brady and the Patriots have faced all year … and perhaps ever.
The statistical bloodbath could not come in a bigger game: the Patriots are fighting to secure a first-round bye. They’ll also attempt to preserve the franchise’s legacy as the only 16-0 team in history. The Nov. 30 battle comes almost exactly 24 years to the day after the most famous and most-watched Monday night game in history: Miami’s 38-24 triumph over the undefeated Bears on Dec. 2, 1985.
That’s a full plate of storylines to force down on a full holiday belly.
Here’s a look at the New Orleans defense through several of the critical Quality Stats we chronicle at Cold, Hard Football Facts.
No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating: We discussed the importance of defensive passer rating earlier this year. It is the best and most accurate way to measure a team’s pass defense, far more indicative of performance than yards allowed.
Yards are the preferred indicator of the “pundits” but it’s a very, very misleading indicator. The Saints look merely mediocre when measured by yards allowed (214.9 YPG, 16th). But the Saints are almost always ahead and opponents are almost always passing the ball to play catch-up. New Orleans opponents have attempted 370 passes against them this year, among the most in the league (the Patriots have faced just 316 attempts this year).
So yards can be misleading. But defensive passer rating is not. It is a deadly accurate indicator of success, and all the consistently great defenses in history — from Lombardi’s Packers to Noll’s Steel Curtain to Lott’s 49ers — rated very, very highly in DPR.
And New Orleans easily tops the NFL in this indicator, with a 57.8 defensive passer rating. That puts the Saints on pace to produce the best pass defense the NFL has since the 2003 Super Bowl champion Patriots (56.2 DPR).
To look at it from the other side of the ball, opposing quarterbacks have produced a meager 57.8 passer rating against the New Orleans defense — well below the league-wide standard of 83.8.
The average observer who looks at yards sees a Saints team with an average pass defense. The observer who looks at the Saints through the omniscient prism of the Cold, Hard Football Facts sees the best pass defense in the league.
No. 1 in interceptions: The Saints have picked off 20 passes this year, easily the most in football.
In NFL arithmetic, INTs = Ws. In fact, each INT a team grabs increases their chances of winning by about 20 percentage points. So these 20 picks are a big reason for the success of the Saints.
Brady has been very, very good as usual at avoiding INTs: He boasts the best TD-INT ratio in NFL history (2.4 to 1) and he’s thrown just six picks in 393 attempts this year.
Brady’s also avoided these mistakes despite playing some of the best pass defenses in football – the Bills are second in INTs (17), the Jets are third in DPR (72.4); the Colts were fourth in DPR until being shredded by Brady two weeks ago.
But the Saints theft-masters provide the biggest challenge to date.
No. 1 in completion percentage: The Saints have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 53.2 percent of their passes this year — that’s well below the league average of 61.1 percent completions.
It’s hard to keep drives alive when you complete barely half your passes and no team forces more incompletions than the Saints.
No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential: After years studying decades of football data, it became fairly evident that pro football is all about one thing: winning the passing efficiency battle.
Running effectively is almost meaningless in the NFL, while passing well on offense and stopping the pass on defense have been critical to almost every game that’s ever been played. So Cold, Hard Football Facts introduced an indicator this year called passer rating differential to measure which teams are best at winning the passing battle. We merely subtract a team’s defensive passer rating from its offensive passer rating.
Just as we suspected, it’s become a hugely telling indicator of success. For example, the undefeated Saints are No. 1 in passer rating differential. The undefeated Colts are No. 2 in this indicator. Notice a trend?
The Patriots, for their part, are No. 3 in passer rating differential — an encouraging sign for the team’s postseason hopes.
But the Saints absolutely dominate this indicator – easily winning the passing battle week after week like no other team in football. Here’s the top five in PRD this year.
No. 1: New Orleans – +48.0
No. 2: Indianapolis – +27.2
No. 3: New England – +26.9
No. 4: Green Bay – +24.9
No. 5: Minnesota – +23.1
Two things jump out from this list of five times: 1) it contains the four teams universally proclaimed in pretty much every “Power Rankings” as the top four in football (NO, Indy, NE, MINN); and 2) the Saints blow every other team out of the water.
No. 2 in defensive passing yards per attempt: After the final score, passing yards per attempt is probably the most critical measure of success in football. Teams that win the passing YPA battle historically win nearly 75 percent of NFL games.
The 2009 Saints allow opposing teams to gain just 6.2 yards per pass attempt. Only Rex Ryan’s Jets are stingier in this area (6.0 YPA).
Coupled with the fact that New Orleans boasts the NFL’s highest average per pass attempt on offense and — like passer rating differential — it makes for a deadly statistical advantage in favor of the Saints week after week.
No. 2 in Negative Pass Plays: The Saints force opposing passers into critical negative pass plays (sacks or INTs) on 11.4 percent of drop backs. That’s the second-best rate in the NFL (behind Philly). The Patriots, for their part, are well down the list, forcing negative pass plays on 9.3 percent of dropbacks (17th in the NFL).
The Saints are not a dominant pass-rushing team (24 sacks). But coupled with their league-leading 20 INTs, it means that New Orleans has forced 44 negative pass plays this year. Philly, No. 1 in the league, has produced 46 negative pass plays (30 sacks, 16 INT).
The Patriots are well down the list, forcing just 31 negative pass plays this year (18 sacks, 13 INT).
An INT almost always turns momentum. Sacks often turn momentum. The fact that the Saints are among the very best in the league at producing these game-changing plays is another sign of the impact their defense is having on the team’s fortunes this year.
No. 1 in off-season acquisitions: As we stated, and as you know, offensive players generate all the attention. Newly acquired quarterbacks like Brett Favre in Minnesota, Kyle Orton in Denver and Jay Cutler in Chicago have inspired countless headlines, chat-board rants and on-the-field dramas here in 2009.
But the biggest off-season acquisition in football this year might have been Darren Sharper, the future Hall of Fame safety who the Saints grabbed away from the Vikings back at the start of free agency in March. It was a critical move.
Sharper is one of the great defenders in league history: He’s second in the NFL this year with seven INTs and first with three defensive touchdowns, setting a Saints franchise record along the way.
He’s among the all-time leaders in both categories, too:
Sharper is No. 1 among active players with 61 career INTs, a mark that stands ninth all time. With two more picks, he’ll tie the guy at No. 6 on the list, Ronnie Lott. Sharper has returned 11 picks for TDs in his 13-year career, second in history only to Rod Woodson, who scored 12 pick-sixes in a 17-year career.
Sharper’s also defended a career-best 12 passes, an unusually high number for a floating free safety.
Sharper, in other words, is one of the most productive defenders of our life time, a Brett Favre-caliber performer who has the misfortune of playing on the side of the ball that garners blank looks instead of hype and headlines.
New defensive coordinator Greg Williams has gained, and perhaps deserve, much of the credit for the improved New Orleans defense. But Sharper is the prolific veteran who’s actually made it happen on the field.
Brady and the Patriots have proven over the years that they can light up almost any defense and that they can overcome any seeming statistical disadvantage. The Colts, for example, lead the league in scoring defense (15.7 PPG) and the Patriots torched them for 34 points.
The Saints surrender more points (20.4 PPG). But they pose a unique set of challenges.
The Patriots of the Belichick-Brady Era have never faced a team so thoroughly prolific on both sides of passing battle: the New Orleans offense moves the ball through the air about as well as any other team and, with far fewer headlines, they dominate opposing passers more thoroughly than any defense in football.
It’s a deadly one-two combination and it sets up probably the greatest statistical and personal showdown of the 2009 season: the great Tom Brady and the prolific New England pass attack vs. the great Darren Sharper and the stifling New Orleans pass defense.
Tailgate New Orleans style
I got out of the habit of including a recipe in this space each week, but got a lot of emails about it over the past few weeks. New Orleans, meanwhile, is the best foodie city in America. So I figured I’d pull something out of the savory Cold, Hard Football Facts tailgate recipe library.
This is a recipe for shrimp remoulade I got from Steven Latter, the owner of Tujague’s, one of the legendary eateries of the French Quarter, right near Jackson Square.
Remoulade is a spicy, mustard-based Creole sauce that is often tossed with boiled, chilled shrimp. But you can use it as you would any other condiment in backyard barbecues or tailgates to add a kick to hot dogs, hamburgers, pork, chicken and other types of seafood.
Tujaque’s Shrimp Remoulade
3/4 cup finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
1/4 cup finely chopped lettuce
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
4 oz. Zatarain’s Creole mustard or any brown mustard
Generous amount of paprika, for color
6 oz. olive oil
1 t. fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 to 2 lbs. boiled, chilled shrimp
Make sure onion, celery, scallions, lettuce and parsley are finely chopped and then mix them together. Add mustard and mix well. Add paprika, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well again. Sauce can be made in advance and will keep for several days. Pour the sauce in a bowl with boiled, chilled shrimp and toss to coat completely. Serve the shrimp on a bed of lettuce greens. This recipe will make about 16 ounces of remoulade and serve about 4 to 8 people.