Can the Saints Pass Defense 'Press' Its Way to Success?

David Malinsky

Monday, August 7, 2017 2:02 PM UTC

Monday, Aug. 7, 2017 2:02 PM UTC

What to expect from new-look Saints secondary in 2017? … On the potential dangers of Carlos Martinez over-thinking this evening.

Point Blank – August 7, 2017

With a full board of NFL pre-season games now at hand, even if there will be precious few genuine investment opportunities because of the nature of this particular card, the team-by-team tour to set up the 2017 campaign will bring some of the talking points into a sharper focus. It may not be that your bankroll is in play this week, but in watching and grading there is a buffet of food for thought.

The protocol here is to isolate one key issue for each team, and today the focus goes to a New Orleans defense that has been nothing short of awful in recent campaigns and as such brings low expectations. But there may be something to see here, so it is time to get to work.

It doesn’t take any level of genius to see how bad the Saints have been at making stops. They have gone 7-9 three years running, despite the offense finishing an average of No. 7 in the Football Outsiders weighted ranks across that time. It took a big effort form the offense to get them in striking distance of .500 because –

 Overall    vs. Pass

2014     #28     #27

2015     #32     #32

2016     #32     #30

Naturally when a defense is that dreadful there will be talk about improvement in the offseason, and given the recent New Orleans levels it would be difficult to not improve. But might there be something genuinely interesting going on with that pass defense? It calls for a deeper look.

First we have to properly grade 2016 from the standpoint of tactics and personnel, the former an issue because better things were expected from Dennis Allen in his first full season as DC. But what did Allen have to work with? A team that only had five players healthy enough to be on the field for at least 60 percent of the snaps, the only cornerback on that list being Sterling Moore, who did not join the team until September. It was a mess in terms of trying to put a playbook together, especially given the Allen philosophy. He sums it up well in something that made my files, and should be in yours:

"We're a best 11 defense, and if our best 11 are four down and three linebackers, that's who you're going to see out on the field. The whole thought process behind what we do schematically is we have multiple packages, and that allows us to evaluate our players and see what they can do."

That tells us that as the faces in the defensive huddle change for this season, the schemes may change also, and there is one particular aspect to focus on – in going from a shallow and injury-riddled CB corps, to one that now has plenty of depth, the pieces are in place to play some aggressive press coverage, something they could not dare do in 2016.

Let’s go to New Orleans secondary coach Aaron Glenn for the philosophy behind some of the additions at the position, including first-round pick Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State): "I think the first thing we do is guys we see in college, we see if they have that skill set. If they haven't done it in college, they do have the ability, they do have the length, they do have the speed. But the majority of guys we have, have done it to some extent in college, so that's what we're looking for. … Speed, length and mentality. Speed to get ready and turn up the rail, length to get ready to disrupt and mentality, just be able to want to do that, put yourself in those one-on-one situations. We have those guys." 

Not only do they have the prototype personnel for that type of defense, but there may also be a unique level of buy-in, with eight different defensive players working together for a week in Los Angeles back in May at the Unbreakable Performance Center. A valuable part of that training centered around MMA skills, which connect to what a CB has to do at the line of scrimmage when taking on WRs.

Let’s go to CB Ken Crawley: "Some of the techniques we used, just hand speed, boxing, kickboxing, all that type of stuff, taking down guys. I'd say it really brings like the physicality in our game, and using our hands. We put more emphasis on that in the offseason." 

And more from CB DeVante Harris:I mean, when you spend a week with someone, you really understand what type of person they are. And we all just got closer. We worked hard. … We worked on hand placement and violence. It all tied in to the fact that we’re gonna be playing press, so I feel that really just helped our hands and our quickness and our violence.”

The Saints are not going to morph into a good defense this season, that would be too major of an upgrade. But there is a plan in place, and a lot of depth in the secondary, so there may be legit improvements, perhaps to as much as “slightly below average.” The markets may not see that upgrade coming.


Might Carlos Martinez run the risk of thinking too much this evening?

There has been a lot of money to Martinez and the Cardinals in the early Monday trading, an opener of Kansas City -118 sliding all the way over to St. Louis -123. On the general abilities of Martinez vs. Ian Kennedy at this stage of their careers I can see that; the Cardinal right-hander has the stuff to be pitching in All-Star games in the future, while this may be Kennedy’s last go-round. But the current form of Martinez, and his own take regarding it, puts him under the microscope this evening.

What is so special about the Martinez pitching profile? He is No. 2 across MLB starters in average fastball velocity at 97.0, yet has also generated a GB% of better than 50.0 in every season. For 2017 it has been 9.7 K/9 and 51.0 in ground balls, and that can take you to a high level.

What has happened instead was a terrific opening to the season, a 2.86 ERA over his first 14 starts, has fallen to a 1-4/5.09 over his last eight. A big part of that has been allowing at least one first-inning run in each of his last six outings, including digging a 3-0 hole vs. Milwaukee in a key NL Central showdown in his last game that the Cardinals could not climb out of.

The focus sharpens tonight because instead of letting his pitching take its course, Martinez has been openly talking (through a translator), about those first-inning difficulties: "I think I need to try a little bit harder to focus in the first inning, especially if something goes wrong, if they score a run, not to let that allow me to lose focus. In my warmups I throw all my pitches at game speed. I try to stay focused and try to treat my warmups as if I was pitching an inning during a game. Now I think it's more of an issue of staying in control mentally, and that's something I need to work on…I'm starting to realize that maybe it is time to maybe think about making some changes and adjustments, because I know we're at a point where we can possibly make the playoffs, and it's time to buckle in and get going."

I will be focusing in closely, because one of the Martinez traits that was easy to see from the start is that his emotional state is easy to read. He brings a lot of energy to the mound, as one could imagine from someone that throws with the velocity he brings despite only being 6-0 and weighing 190 pounds.

Is there a risk of Martinez over-thinking a bit? Might this be a time in which he should focus on staying calm, and trusting his stuff? He is sitting on a 3.38 ERA and 3.45 FIP over 633 MLB innings, despite not having reached his 26th birthday yet, which is something that certainly does not call for any tinkering.

St. Louis manager Mike Matheny is aware of the delicate balance:"You're trying to get that intensity in the bullpen to match the intensity out on the mound. He's an intense pitcher, and it's hard to replicate that sometimes as you're getting prepared for the game. You also don't want to spend all your bullets down there, so it's a fine line."

I will be watching closely tonight to see if Martinez comes out loose and aggressive, or instead might be a little tight through the first inning. There has been one genuine flaw – 15 first-inning walks across 22 frames, compared to just 39 in 118.1 in all others -- and that needs to be corrected, but have some of the other difficulties in the opening stanza just been a case of Baseball Being Baseball? Let’s go to one of the areas that can be attributed to randomness, BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play).

Martinez BABIP by inning

#1   .333

#2   .235

#3   .276

#4   .294

#5   .259

#6   .244

I stop there because the sample size beyond the sixth is too small, only 14 frames all season. Martinez has had some control issues in the opening frame, but there may also have been some baseball luck in play, which does tend to balance itself over time. The question is whether his psyche allows for that time, or if he may be in too much of a correction mode.


Your Daily Dose of Sports BIT

The Monday edition will be up a little later than usual because of the travel time for Ted Sevransky to get back from IFBC weekend in Costa Rica (it is a tough haul from Las Vegas, no direct flights available through any carriers yet), but I will patch it in here once everything is ready to go.


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