Since Drew Brees went down in a 27-9 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2, the New Orleans Saints have had to rely on their defense more than they have in the past.
Turmoil shows the true resilience of a franchise, and at least one member of the team is no stranger to professional turmoil.
Cornerback Eli Apple is on his second team of his career after being drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft just four years ago. He’s also been one of the contributors to the Saints’ defensive rise which has helped the team get two straight wins without their Hall Of Fame quarterback.
Coming up next, the defending NFC South champions will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who look more dangerous than their 2-2 record might indicate. A win for the Bucs equals a lead in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions. A win for the Saints puts them firmly in the driver seat of the division.
So, let’s get to know, Eli Apple.
ELI APPLE’S HISTORY
Drafted out of Ohio State in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Apple was one of five Buckeyes taken on day one that year. Along with Apple, Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Taylor Decker, and Darron Lee all went in the first round of the year’s selection meeting.
Michael Thomas was selected in the same draft class, although he was snagged by the Saints in the second round.
While Thomas headed to the ‘Big Easy’, Apple went to the ‘Big.....Apple’. Thomas quickly became a star fixture in New Orleans’ offensive attack while Apple struggled. Mightily.
In his rookie season, Apple appeared in fourteen games and had seven pass deflections with one interception. The following year, Apple played in 11 games without having an interception, and was inactive for four games while being suspended for the Giants’ last of the 2017 season.
Former teammate Landon Collins once referred to Apple as a caner as reports of attitude and conflict surrounding the young cornerback began to surface.
After appearing in five games for New York in 2018, the former tenth overall pick was traded to New Orleans for a 2019 fourth round pick which was eventually traded to the Seattle Seahawks, who then selected Oregon cornerback Ugo Amadi. In the same deal, the Giants acquired Seattle’s 30th overall selection and took Georgia cornerback, DeAndre Baker.
Apple then played in ten games as a member of the Saints, starting all ten and coming up with two interceptions.
While we could argue he did better in New Orleans, it wasn’t enough to make the Saints pick up his fifth-year option this past off-season, meaning Apple is expected to become a free-agent in 2020.
2019 ELI APPLE
Arriving to New Orleans also meant reuniting with collegiate teammates like Thomas, and fellow defensive backs Vonn Bell and Marshon Lattimore.
Coming into their first full season together as NFL teammates, the Saints secondary is among the ten teams surrendering the most passing yards this year with more than 1,100-yards allowed through the air after four games.
While the unit has given up some yards, they haven’t been too bad in giving up scoring plays as they sit in the middle of the league with six touchdown passes allowed.
Apple specifically has fifteen tackles on the year without a single pass broken up or interception up to this point.
With Lattimore presumably matching up with Bucs star Mike Evans for most of the afternoon this coming Sunday, Apple will likely find himself defending Chris Godwin who leads the league with four touchdown catches (tied with Evans and six others) and currently sits third in yards with 386.
The fourth-year corner is going to have his hands full and the defense is going to have to come up big, just like they did one week ago against the Dallas Cowboys, if the Saints are going to pull out a home win against Tampa Bay in Week 5.
Eli Apple measures up to a receiver like Chris Godwin pretty well. Because of this, separation is going to be the key for Godwin to make consistent catches against him, and even more crucial when it comes to getting yards after the catch.
Early in the year, Buccaneers receivers are not getting the consistent separation from defensive backs the team would like to see.
Godwin will have to win with solid route running and body positioning against Apple who has the ability to impact passes and receivers when they fail to separate adequately and consistently.
o SCHEME FIT
New Orleans likes to play aggressive on defense when possible, and going up against a team with two great receiving options is likely to increase their aggression in the early going. Simply put, if the Saints defense can pressure Jameis Winston into early hits, sacks and/or mistakes, then it bodes well for them.
However, this also means a lot of man coverage situations for guys like Apple. The cornerback looks more comfortable playing off coverage, even in man situations where he’ll line up in press but often times bail early giving him a bit of a cushion on his receiver.
If Winston finds himself under fire early, then he’ll be pressured to make earlier throws, which will play right into Apple’s skill set and lead to opportunities for him to make big plays.
o LONG COVERAGE
While his play style helps him early in routes when quarterbacks are under fire, it hurts him later when the passers have time to let plays develop.
His cushion is usually pretty big, and skilled receivers will attack the cushion he gives them forcing him back further than he’d like to go early on in coverage. This opens the door to open cuts on in and out breaking routes along with easy completions on comeback routes when the offensive line is able to stifle the Saints’ defensive front.
Another aspect of Apple’s game stems from his awareness of his own cushion. He knows he has size and he is confident in his ability to run with most receivers downfield. This usually means he won’t turn and run with receivers until the last moment. The down side to this for the Saints is it leaves him susceptible to double moves.
Again, not something the New Orleans defense tends to worry about because double moves require time. If the Buccaneers can find a way to give Winston some time in cover one or cover zero looks, then Apple could be a prime candidate to bite on an early double move, especially if Bucs receivers have gotten early success on quick breaks early in the game.
It’s not that Apple can’t tackle, he just isn’t very good when he’s the primary guy needing to come through with an open field play.
This has led opponents in the past to scheme ways to isolate Apple against some shiftier receivers or running backs with pitches and screens.
Typically, because of Apple’s defensive alignment, the Saints would look to him to ensure the ball carrier is contained and turned back inside. However, because of his stiffness in attacking ball carriers in open space, Apple can be manipulated with ease leading to a soft edge on outside runs and open space for faster backs and quicker receivers to get chunks of yards at a time.
Ronald Jones and Bobo Wilson are two such players who could find success if the Buccaneers can find a way to get them one-on-one against Apple with space to get him flat-footed before accelerating around him for solid gains.
It’s been an up and down season for the Saints secondary, and in this match-up, both cornerbacks are going to have to have good days to keep the game from getting out of hand.
After putting up more than 40 points against the Los Angeles Rams, the Buccaneers offense is going to be highly confident, but ultra focused under the experienced guidance of Byron Leftwich.
This is a dangerous situation for the Saints, and while we all know Marshon Lattimore will be an important influence on this game, so will Ei Apple.