METAIRIE, La. - Here is one way the New Orleans Saints have taken this season with its very slim margins and turned it into something that could ultimately result in a playoff berth: When opponents have had their best chances at scoring, nobody has done a better job than the Saints of slamming the door shut.
Entering Week 18, the Saints have the NFL’s No. 1 red zone defense by a pretty comfortable margin.
The differences between seven points and three points, or seven points and no points, has altered the shape (and, potentially, the outcome) of a handful of Saints games this season, which is a big deal as the injury-riddled club goes into Week 18 with a decent shot of clinching a playoff spot.
“It’s huge,” said Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. “It’s one of the main reasons why we’re in the position that we’re in, giving ourselves an opportunity to get ourselves in the tournament.”
New Orleans has been especially stout in the red zone lately.
As they’ve made this late-season push toward a playoff spot, the Saints have allowed only one of the last seven drives that have crossed their 20-yard line to result in a score.
"We’ve got an emphasis on bend, don’t break,” said defensive end Cameron Jordan. “We get in there and we try to make them earn each and every yard over there.”
Several of the Saints defensive players chalked their successes with their backs up against the wall to their deep knowledge of their assignments as well as an understanding of what their opponent is going to do in a given situation.
That leads back to Allen. Saints head coach Sean Payton said it’s not the complexity of Allen’s scheme inside the red zone that has led to its success.
“I think No. 1, we're playing with good eyes, playing good zone,” Payton said. “I think we've gotten off the field on third down. We talk about that play —that third down play in the red area that, if the offense converts, a lot of times leads to a touchdown. … I think (Allen) and those guys have done a real good job.”
This hasn’t been a strong suit of Allen’s Saints defenses over the years. Since he arrived as Saints defensive coordinator in 2015, his Saints teams have ranked, in order, 32nd, 23rd, 14th, 23rd, 20th and 29th in red zone defense prior to this season.
But the Saints have incorporated some new voices on their staff, particularly defensive backs coach Kris Richard — himself a former coordinator — which Allen said has played a part in this year’s success.
“We haven’t had a huge overhaul in what we’re doing, but I think our guys have a little bit better understanding of exactly how to do it than maybe what we had done in the past,” Allen said. “I think Kris has been a huge part of that. I think he’s been an outstanding addition for us. Certainly you see that show up in the red zone.”