The 2012 Saints are far from where lofty expectations placed them, even when those expectations were tempered by turmoil at head coach, a holdout franchise quarterback and painful suspensions on defense.
The defense is among the league worst and trending towards all-time records for futility, having given up 3323 yards through seven games and 447 more on Monday night against Philadelphia, leading the NFL in avg yards allowed per game by more than 50 yards. Realistically a long shot to make the playoffs, the Saints have the second worst record in the NFC at 3-5, and have very little chance of catching the 8-0 Falcons for a divisional crown playoff berth.
Easily the MVP of the Saints' offense at the midway point is WR Marques Colston, who leads the team with 44 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, an 14.2 yard/reception average. Of his 44 catches, 35 have been for first downs, second best among players with at least 34 catches so far.
Colston has taken over games, most notably his dominant nine catch, 131-yard, three-score game against San Diego, which came a week after a nine-catch, 153-yard, one touchdown effort against Green Bay. After an early fumble was a disappointing momentum-stealer in the Saints' season opener, Colston has been a reliable weapon for the Saints' league-leading passing game.
It is difficult to pick a defensive MVP on a unit so troubled. It should be noted that an award for LVP, least valuable player, would have to go to veteran team captain strong safety Roman Harper, who has been a remarkable liability for the Saints' defense. Pro Football Weekly analyst Nolan Nawrocki wrote that "Harper infects Saints' defense," noting that there is no pass rush in 2012, "exposing [Harper] in deep coverage, where his heavy feet and grab-and-hold-on style are miscast."
While Harper excels as a close-in safety and a presence against the run, and while he had a second interception nullified by poor officiating in Tampa Bay, he is a poison in the passing game and a poor fit in Spagnuolo's system so far. Is that a bigger problem with Harper or Spagnuolo? Harper has been a coverage liability since day one, but the Spagnuolo system has Harper unremarkable in more traditional coverage. While the blitz-happy Gregg Williams system had Harper making but also giving up big plays, Spagnuolo seems to be generate only the latter. The Saints' defense, while taking some big steps forward on Monday Night against the Eagles, showed the same helplessness in the deep passing game as they have all season.
Starting left defensive end Cam Jordan leads the Saints with 6.0 sacks, three on Monday night against Michael Vick, while backup end Martez Wilson single-handedly snuffed out the Chargers' final drive with a forced fumble and recovery to secure the victory.
But no player has been more a more reliable and stabilizing force than MLB Curtis Lofton, who replaced the Saints' four-year captain Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker and has led the Saints in tackles and assists. Lofton is the only linebacker to have started all eight games, and the only linebacker to collect a sack or a forced fumble. Even with Vilma back on the field (for now?) as an outside linebacker, Lofton's teammates at OLB have underperformed and been injured, recycled, temporarily-unsuspended, and even converted (Roman Harper has played nickel linebacker at times).
Lofton is generating tackles at a faster clip than he did in four seasons as a full-time starter in Atlanta. He averaged 5.4 solo tackles per game in 64 regular season games for Atlanta, and through eight games has 54 tackles, a 6.8 solo tackle/game clip. Lofton has generated 8 or more total tackles in all but one game this season, and has turned in nine solo tackles three times.
Lofton's nine tackle, one assist, one sack game against the Chargers helped the Saints' clinch their first victory of the season. It was Lofton who forced a fumble on Eagles TE Brent Celek to help snuff out a late Eagles charge on Monday night. If the Saints defense will make any improvements as the season goes along, it will be with the stabilizing influence of Lofton leading the way.