After struggling during the opening few weeks of the season, the New Orleans Saints have been on a roll recently.
New Orleans (4-4) has won three of their last four games and a big reason is improved offensive play, which is a result of stellar performances from their early season trade acquisitions – Max Unger and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Overall, New Orleans has made four trades in 2015 with the overall goal of getting younger and improving the offensive line and defense while still producing a top-ranked offense, according to Mike Tripplett of ESPN. The Saints, after a slow start, rank No. 2 in the NFL in yards per game (422.2), third in passing yards (323.1), and tied-6th in points (26.6).
"I think that their offseason goal was, 'We've got cap problems, we need to get young, we're not gonna get rid of Drew (Brees), so let's try to sit on the fence of contender and rebuilder.' And I think they accomplished all those," said ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson
New Orleans is averaging 30.6 points over their last five games and is coming off a dramatic 52-49 victory over the New York Giants where quarterback Drew Brees threw for 505 yards and an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes.
The key for New Orleans has been to keep pressure off of Brees. The Saints have surrendered 18 sacks this season (13th most) but only six in the four games they have won. As a result, Brees also has been much better in wins than losses. In the four games New Orleans has won, Brees has completed 74.7 (130-of-174) percent of his passes for 1,431 yards and 11 touchdowns while also throwing three interceptions. Overall, Brees has completed 69.3 percent (210-of-303) of his passes for 2,376 yards and 15 touchdowns along with six interceptions.
New Orleans has also improved their rushing attack in the past two weeks. Following their win against Atlanta two weeks ago, the Saints ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards per game (84.7), and were tied for last in yards per carry (3.4). Now, they are tied for 21st in rushing yards (99.3 yards) and 27th in yards per carry (3.8).
Unger, who came over from Seattle for TE Jimmy Graham, has been the anchor of a banged-up offensive line. The 29-year-old center and veteran tackle Zack Strief are the only two players to start up front in each of the Saints' first eight games.
While Unger mans the middle of the offensive line, Stephone Anthony may end up being the most important piece to the trade for Graham. The Saints used the No. 31 overall pick in the 2015 draft that they received from Seattle on the 23-year-old linebacker out of Clemson.
Anthony recorded his first double-digit tackle game against the New York Giants, coming up with 11 total steps that included five assists. He has a team-high 56 tackles which includes five tackles for losses. Anthony also has a sack, interception, and four pass defensed.
Hoomanawanui might be the biggest surprise of the Saints pickups. Hoomanawanui has been extremely valuable in New Orleans three-tight end sets as he has opened things up for fellow tight end Benjamin Watson due to his run and pass blocking prowess. Watson has 38 receptions for 763 yards and is on pace for a career-high 76 catches and 944 yards.
Hoomanawanui has seven catches for 35 yards and a touchdown. The Saints received the 27-year-old tight end from the New England Patriots for Akiem Hicks, the team's third round pick in 2012.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive tackle Tyeler Davison also have made important contributions since the Saints have acquired them. Ellerbe came over to New Orleans along with a third round pick, who the Saints used on cornerback P.J. Williams, from the Miami Dolphins for wide receiver Kenny Stills. Ellerbe has dealt with a rash of injuries but has been productive when healthy, compiling 28 tackles and forcing a fumble – he had 13 tackles in the 31-21 win over Atlanta on October 15. Williams has spent the entire season on injured reserve.
The Saints used the fifth-round draft pick they received from Kansas City for guard Ben Grub on Davison, an athletic big man out of Fresno State. Davison has appeared in all eight games for New Orleans, making two starts and recording six tackles including a sack.
New Orleans heads into their Week 9 matchup against the Tennessee Titans (1-6) a little banged up on the defense, according to Evan Woodberry of the Times-Picayune. The Saints will be without three key linebackers as Hau'oli Kikaha (ankle), Ellerbe (hip), and Ramon Humber (hamstring) have been ruled out of the game.
[photo by Sean Gardner/Gettty Image]