Here's how bad you should expect the New Orleans Saints' defense to play on Sunday against Washington


The Saints' defense performs terribly on the road against Washington in 2008. The more things change...

This has been the week sportswriters have caught up with how bad the New Orleans Saints' defense has been all year — yes, even back when there were happy delusions that things might be getting better.

Today, the always sensible Mike Triplett over at ESPN added more helpful context to the discussion.
The Saints (4-5) are on pace to allow the highest opponents' passer rating of all-time (112.0), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The current record of 110.9 was set by the 0-16 Detroit Lions in 2008.
The Saints are near .500 even though they have the defense of an 0-16 team, basically. You can thank Drew Brees for that, as I wrote the other day

Another excellent way to evaluate the quality of a defense is to look at how many yards it gives up per pass on average. The Saints are historically bad in that number, too — currently they are giving up 8.5 yards per pass. What makes that number even more damning is they've managed it against a slate of offenses that aren't exactly scary.

So buckle your metaphorical chin strap and let's take a look at what horrors the team with the worst passing offense by yards per attempt, Washington, will unleash on the Saints this weekend.

The Saints have allowed all but one team they've faced this year to exceed is overall average number of yards per attempt. Their sole good performance came at the best possible time: Against Atlanta in the Superdome at night. The Falcons average 7.6 yards per attempt, and the Saints allowed just 6.7. 

Let's take a look at the effect the Saints' pass defense has had on each opponent.
You can see the Saints are responsible for a pretty huge chunk of each opponent's performance. In the end, it works out to about 1.4 yards per pass attempt per game, a number somewhat skewed by the Saints' one decent game.

Before we check on what this number likely means for the Saints in Washington on Sunday, let's back up a moment and talk about the importance of yardage per pass attempt. I'll borrow from some excellent research by football blogger Ed Feng, who writes:
While the importance of passing in the NFL will not surprise anyone, the insignificance of rushing might. The visual for rush efficiency shows playoff teams as a random scatter of positive and negative values for their regular season statistics. A strong run game on offense and defense does not help a team make the playoffs.

Moreover, teams with a high rush efficiency do not suddenly become clutch in the playoffs. Almost half of the teams that played in the Super Bowl allowed more yards per carry than they gained. In 2006, Indianapolis won the Super Bowl while having the worst rush efficiency in the NFL. Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011 weren’t much better.
Passing efficiency, represented by Feng as the difference between your team's yardage per attempt and that given up by your offense, is highly statistically significant when determining wins. Rushing efficiency is not. In fact, says Feng,  "Pass efficiency explains 62% of the variance in wins in the NFL."

What does that mean for the 2015 Saints? Well, as noted above, the Saints are giving up 8.5 yards per pass attempt, which is historically bad. On offense, Drew Brees is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, which is outstanding: Only 11 quarterbacks in the past decade have averaged eight yards or more during a complete regular season, including Brees in 2009 and 2011. (Which means the Saints are wasting a potential 2009-esque Brees performance, but, again, I've already kicked that dead horse a few times.)

So the Saints are off the yardage per attempt mark by almost a half yard, through no fault of their quarterback's. Feng writes, of the ten seasons from 2003 to 2012: 
Only 15 of 120 playoff teams in this era allowed more yards per pass attempt than they gained.
Which means the Saints almost certainly aren't going anywhere this year except to another record of 7-9 or so — barring extraordinary, immediate, and sustained improvement from their pass defense.

It's truly a shame: There have been 30 individual performances this century in which a quarterback has averaged over eight yards for a season, and only once — 2004 Kansas City — did the team have a losing record. There's a good chance the Saints join that list this year.

Back to the immediate point, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins averages a league-worst 6.3 yards per pass attempt. An average 2015 Saints defensive performance would bump that number up by 1.4 yards, to 7.7, which would be good enough to place Washington among the league's top ten passing offenses.

And so that's what the Saints are dealing with Sunday — not a game against the league's worst passing offense, but a game against one of its ten best. Their defense makes it that way. My advice is to start Kirk Cousins on your fantasy team.

I sure am.

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