BusinessThe Saints’ Defense Dwarfs Green Bay’s — Even With...

The Saints’ Defense Dwarfs Green Bay’s — Even With Fewer Assets


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There is no sport where coaching matters quite like the National Football League.

The latest example comes when studying the defenses in both Green Bay and New Orleans — two teams that will clash today at Lambeau Field in a key early season NFC battle.

The Packers have eight defensive players on their roster that were selected in the first round. The Saints have just three first rounders on the team and two in the starting lineup.

But who has the better defense?

Here’s a hint: it’s not the team with all the first round draft picks.

“Fast, physical, aggressive, very sound,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of the Saints. “They’re going to challenge you on all three levels.”

New Orleans currently ranks fourth in the league in total yards allowed, sixth in points, seventh in passing defense and eighth in sacks. A year ago, the Saints were second in passing defense, fifth in yards allowed, fifth in sacks and ninth in scoring defense.

The Packers, meanwhile, are back in a familiar spot, ranking 27th in total defense, 30th in rushing defense and 14th in scoring defense.

Why the difference?

It starts with coaching.

New Orleans head coach Dennis Allen has been one of the brighter defensive minds in the game for more than two decades. Allen’s defensive prowess earned him a head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders a decade ago, and another opportunity with New Orleans beginning in 2022.

The Saints’ starting defense consists of two first round picks, a second rounder, six players taken in Round 3, one fifth rounder and an undrafted free agent. But watching New Orleans, you’d never know its defense is made up mostly of players taken on the second and third day of the draft.

“They’re just a really good defense,” Packers wide receiver Samori Toure said of the Saints. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of star power other than like a few guys. But they’re really well coached. Very aggressive on the back end.”

New Orleans has held 10 straight opponents to fewer than 20 points, the longest streak in club history. The Saints didn’t allow a touchdown in 2023 until Carolina scored a garbage-time TD with 1 minute, 16 seconds remaining on Monday night.

The Saints’ two first round picks in the starting lineup — defensive end Cam Jordan and cornerback Marshon Lattimore — are elite players. Jordan has been to eight Pro Bowls, while Lattimore has gone to four.

But the Saints’ ability to coach mid-round draft picks into standouts is the biggest reason they’ve become a defensive force.

Demario Davis, a third round pick, is a tackling machine. Undrafted defensive end Carl Granderson has become a force and has 2.5 sacks in the first two games. Free safety Tyrann Mathieu, a former third round pick, has 29 career interceptions and is a menace in back. The others are aggressive, assignment sure, and play like their hair is on fire.

“What I see is a great coached team,” Packers rookie wideout Jayden Reed said of the Saints. “They’re coached really well. They stick to the plan and have guys that go out there and compete and play hard. They’ve got great people up front, veterans in the secondary and you can just tell they’re a very well put together team. They know their roles and they play it really well.”

Allen, who coordinated defenses in Denver and New Orleans, still calls the defensive shots with plenty of input from coordinator Joe Woods. The Saints run a 4-3 scheme, don’t blitz a great deal and are one of the most fundamentally sound units in the league.

“Their scheme and their system allow for the guys to play freely,” Packers right guard Jon Runyan said. “And I know Dennis Allen is a defensive coach and that’s what they preach over there.

“They’re big defensive guys. I feel like they have a standard and they hold their people to that standard and they’ve been a really good defense for a long time.”

Now, contrast that to Green Bay — where defense has been an issue for several years, despite general managers Brian Gutekunst and Ted Thompson using 12 of the Packers’ last 13 first round picks on defensive players.

When LaFleur was hired in 2019, he retained Mike Pettine as his defensive coordinator. After two mediocre season, though, the two sides parted ways.

LaFleur then targeted former University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to run his defense. When Leonhard stayed put in Madison, though, LaFleur tabbed Barry who he became close with during their time with the Los Angeles Rams.

On two different occasions, Rams coach Sean McVay bypassed Barry when he needed a coordinator. And when Brandon Staley left the Rams to become the Los Angeles Chargers’ head coach in 2021, he selected Denver defensive backs coach Renaldo Hill to run his defense — not Barry.

When Leonhard turned LaFleur down, though, the Packers’ head coach went with Barry despite a résumé that left much to be desired.

Barry was a defensive coordinator in Detroit in 2007-08 and in Washington in 2015-16, where things went remarkably bad in both cities.

Detroit ranked dead last in yards and points in both of Barry’s seasons running the defense.

In 2015, Washington ranked 28th in yards (380.6) and 17th in points (23.7). Then in 2016, Washington was once again 28th in yards (377.9) and 19th in points allowed (23.9).

“I think he’s learned a lot from those previous experiences,” LaFleur said after hiring Barry. “I don’t think he’d ever hide from those. I think, you know, the bottom line is we are going to get judged on what we do moving forward.”

What those Packers’ defenses have done under Barry leaves a lot to be desired.

Barry’s 2021 defense in Green Bay ranked a respectable ninth in yards (328.2), but 14th in points (21.8). Last year, the Packers slipped to 17th in total defense (336.5) and 17th in points allowed (21.8).

The 2023 season has just begun. To date, though, it looks the same tired movie despite first round draft picks Kenny Clark, Devonte Wyatt, Quay Walker, Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage and Lukas Van Ness all playing key roles.

Green Bay played without three key offensive starters in Atlanta last week and needed Barry’s defense to shine. Instead, the Falcons ran for 211 yards on 44 carries — an average of 4.7 yards per attempt — and used their dominance on the ground to keep the ball away from Green Bay’s offense in an eventual 25-24 win.

Afterwards, LaFleur was as agitated during his postgame press conference as any time during his five-year tenure in Green Bay.

“You guys saw it,” LaFleur said when asked about the run defense. “They shredded us — consistently.”

That’s been a problem in Green Bay for many years, despite a never-ending commitment to first round defensive draft picks.

As Allen and the Saints have shown, though, how players are coached is far more important than where they’re drafted. The Packers will have a first-hand look at that winning strategy today.



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