Brian Allee-Walsh

New Orleans Saints defense gets ‘A’ against Chargers but grade comes with disclaimer

New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson, right, sacks Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Cardale Jones during the second half of Sunday’s preseason game in Carson, Calif.
New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson, right, sacks Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Cardale Jones during the second half of Sunday’s preseason game in Carson, Calif. AP

The 2017 New Orleans Saints will go as far as their defense takes them.

Period. End of story.

And while Who Dat Nation should be encouraged by the solid performance of the team’s No. 1 defensive unit against Cleveland and the franchise that exited San Diego for LA-LA Land, the road back to NFL respectability is long, challenging and filled with adversity.

After all these are the Browns and the Los Angeles Chargers, last-place teams in the AFC North and AFC West who combined for six wins.

And this is the preseason where NFL franchises generally sit their most valuable assets, slightly dinged and gracefully aging veterans and still can justify charging regular season/full price admission. League owners should be ashamed!

The Saints have faced starting quarterbacks Brock Osweiler (Cleveland) and Kellen Clemens (LAC), mere lightweights compared to the proven heavyweights they’ll face this season such as Sam Bradford (Minnesota), Tom Brady (New England), Cam Newton (Carolina, twice), Matthew Stafford (Detroit), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay), Jameis Winston (Tampa Bay, twice), Kirk Cousins (Washington) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta, twice), among others.

That is the challenge facing Saints coach Sean Payton and his assistant coaches as they go about the critical process of paring their 91-man training camp roster to their season-opening roster of 53.

In some cases they must compare apples to oranges, that is, pitting starters against backups and, in many cases, camp bodies. Too, Saints rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore made his preseason debut after being sidelined the previous two weeks with a sprained knee. He started and played 17 snaps but never got tested in coverage because opposing quarterbacks looked elsewhere.

That won’t happen in the regular season when rookie corners are chum in the water for opposing offensive coordinators, quarterbacks and wide receivers.

That’s why last week’s two joint practices against the Chargers and Thursday’s joint practice in Metairie, Louisiana, against the visiting Houston Texans are so important. The Saints faced Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers in team and individual drills. They will face Texans’ first-round pick quarterback Deshaun Watson and current starter Tom Savage in team and individual work.

All that said, one can’t overlook the numbers turned in by coordinator Dennis Allen’s no-name defensive unit against the punchless Chargers.

▪  Eight sacks, 5.5 by projected major contributors (end Alex Okafor, linebackers A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson and safety Kenny Vaccaro)

▪  Twelve quarterback hits

▪  Thirteen tackles for losses

▪  Two turnovers

▪  Zero offensive points allowed

▪  Total net yards (158)

▪  Average gain per play (2.3 yards)

▪  Net yards rushing (66)

▪  Third down conversion (5-of-17, 29 percent).

All in all, a good day’s work.

Take a bow, D.

Now get back to work. Reality football is just around the corner.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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