METAIRIE, La. — The secondary can feel it. The confidence. The know-how to make a big play when they most need it. That’s the New Orleans Saints defensive backfield, a unit of five cornerbacks and safeties that started most of a 13-win season together.
“It’s oozing out,” fourth-year safety Vonn Bell said. “Guys are all over the place. We’re hungry, We want to show the world what we’re capable of.”
The Saints haven’t won a season opener since 2013 in part because of poor secondary play. Too many big pass plays allowed in the opening weeks of the season precipitated the early-season trade for 2016 first-round draft pick Eli Apple from the New York Giants.
This won't be the same secondary of some years' past. Not Monday against the Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. There is no uncertainty. Everything feels settled.
"We're clicking," said cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a Saints' first-round draft pick in 2017. "The communication is there. That's all we need. We know we can do it physically. But mentally, communication, when you get on the same page, that's what you're seeing."
The Saints’ final practice before the final preseason game Aug. 29 was the latest sign of that.
With the defense backed up near the goal line and Michael Thomas split out wide, Lattimore identified the formation. So did Bell. One told the other what was coming, and with that, Lattimore cut in front of Thomas on a slant for an interception.
Then began the celebrating. The secret handshakes. Something different between each set of players. This is a unit feeling good about its potential.
"It was a formation play that you recognize," Bell said. "Mike is on the numbers. That's a slant. This guy is going to come off fast. It's third down. (Lattimore) made a hell of a play."
The first-team Saints defense played through the second and third preseason games without allowing any points over the span of seven possessions. They forced two turnovers with A.J. Klein's interception of a pass tipped by David Onyemata against the Chargers and Lattimore's strip and fumble recovery against the Jets.
This is a locked-in secondary. The better they cover receivers, the better the defensive line can pressure the opposing quarterback.
How long as it been since the secondary could be considered the most stable part of a New Orleans defense?
The quartet of Lattimore, Bell, slot corner P.J. Williams and safety Marcus Williams are about to begin a third season playing together. With Apple, the Saints added a player whose experience with Lattimore and Bell dated to their two seasons together at Ohio State together.
That's considerably more continuity in the defensive backfield than the Saints have possessed in quite some time.
The coaching staff also hasn't had any turnover. All five players have been coached by coordinator Dennis Allen for their whole time with the team, and position assistant Aaron Glenn arrived in 2016.
"A.G. is a real good coach," said P.J. Williams, a third-round selection in 2015.
The coaching from Glenn is not one-sided. He wants feedback. He asks players about their duties on the field to be sure they understand the assignment.
"That's the type of coach he is," Lattimore said. "He helps us, because we have to know it. Not just him. That helps us play fast."
The Saints say this is a totally different team than the one that experienced heartbreak at the end of the last two seasons. Compare this swagger now to how this unit began 2018, and that just may be true.