Apparently linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is the key to everything for the Saints


Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has been an enigma since his days with the Baltimore Ravens.

So I sat down to watch the Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday with the same level of interest I've devoted to most Saints games in 2015: It was something to do. Linebacker Danniell Ellerbe, who is almost always injured, was on the field for the first time in a while. The Saints' defense played pretty well. Eventually, the Saints won.

It was a pretty okay afternoon.

Did you realize the Saints are 4-1 this year in games Ellerbe has appeared in, and 1-7 in games he hasn't? Ellerbe, it turns out, might be the difference between sucking and not sucking. 

The win/loss record alone is a pretty incredible piece of evidence. Let's dive in a bit and see if we can learn anything.

Points Per Game

First, the games in which Ellerbe appeared were:
  • Dallas Cowboy, 26-20 win
  • Philadelphia Eagles, 39-17 loss
  • Atlanta Falcons, 31-21 win
  • Indianapolis Colts, 27-21 win
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-17 win 
One important thing right away: Four of the five games are the four in which the Saints' defense allowed the fewest points. In fact, those four games are the only ones in which the Saints have allowed fewer than 24 points.

Overall, in games Ellerbe has appeared in, the Saints are allowing an average of 23.6 points. That's not particularly great by the standards of good NFL defense, but Sean Payton's Saints have never really played by the standards of good NFL defense. 23.6 would be tied with Washington at 17th. Graded on a Payton-era curve, that's practically the 1985 Bears.

At the very least, I think we can all agree on this: If the Saints were allowing 23.6 points per game overall, they'd be in the playoff race.

In games Ellerbe has not appeared in, the Saints are allowing an incredible 35 point average. The Saints, overall, are allowing a league-worst 30.5 points per game, well behind second-to-last place Cleveland and Jacksonville, who are tied at 27.5. 

The Saints were certainly ripped apart by Philadelphia, allowing 39 points there, so let's not pretend everything is perfect in Ellerbe Land. Still. The difference is massive.

Yards Per Game

Points are all that matter, of course, but maybe the difference between Ellerbe's games and the Saints' others is just flukish. Looking at some other numbers might give us a better idea.

That said, the Saints have allowed 432 yards per game in games played without Ellerbe. In games played with him, they've allowed 386. 

Neither number is good. 386 yards per game would rank the Saints at 28. But it's still a dramatic improvement. It seems significant.

The difference comes in the passing game. The Saints have allowed 259 yards per game with Ellerbe, and 291 per game without him. Once again, they aren't good with him — they would rank 27th — but they're drastically better with him, and that difference would likely be just enough to make the team not suck.

Passer Rating Differential

Passer rating — plain old NFL passer rating — matters. The bigger the difference between yours and your opponent's, the more likely you are to win . Or lose, depending on whether the difference is positive or negative. 

This year, the Saints have a team passer rating of 97.8, which is fine; it's fifth-best in the NFL. But their defense has allowed a 114.2, which is not just bad but historically bad, representing arguably the worst performances of any defense ever.

I'll give you a guess on the gist of the result: The Saints are still not a good pass defense with Ellerbe in the lineup — but they are drastically better. They have allowed a passer rating of 91.3 with him available, which is middling in terms of the NFL in general but — as you can see from the Saints' 4-1 record in those games — is plenty good enough to win games with Drew Brees.

I am afraid to look up the number the Saints have allowed only in games without Ellerbe. It may break my mind.

So what's the deal? How does Ellerbe's presence matter? 

More than likely, it has something to do with the linebacker's skills in coverage. He's easily the Saints' best cover linebacker, with some of the range of a guy like rookie Stephone Anthony but a lot more knowledge and experience. Ellerbe's presence likely takes the pressure off Anthony, allowing the Saints to keep Anthony out of bad situations. 

At the same time, having a good coverage linebacker on the field probably helps out the safeties, so they can be more available to clean up Brandon Browner's messes. Just hypothetical — I haven't backed it up with so-called film study. But I wouldn't be surprised if this is the effect Ellerbe has on the team.

And so it'll be fascinating to see what happens in the Saints' final three games if Ellerbe is available.

We know what'll happen if he's not.

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