On Wednesday, the NFL finally handed out the player penalties it promised back when it announced its findings on the New Orleans Saints' bounty fund. Of course, Saints coaches and executives had already received their punishment, with head coach Sean Payton receiving a full-year ban.
Joining him for the full year will be middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is often thought of as the quarterback of the defense. Will Smith will also sit out four games for his role in the bounty hunt.
Two other members of the Saints' 2009 squad, Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Scott Fujita (three games), received suspensions for their role in the Saints' bounty scheme. But those two are no longer a part of the current Saints team, so frankly, their punishment is of little concern to the Saints organization and its fans.
Of primary focus to New Orleans is the ban against Vilma and Smith. Interestingly enough, there were rumors and great petitioning by fans earlier in the offseason for the Saints to cut both high-priced veterans.
The Saints instead elected to restructure the deals of both players to save the team cap space. Such moves were adequate and allowed the team to sign key veterans: Curtis Lofton, who will assuredly replace Vilma at middle linebacker in 2012, and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who is likely to start alongside Sedrick Ellis on the Saints defensive line.
That the Saints were able to bring in two high-quality players with so little cap space is a testament to the creativity general manager Mickey Loomis displays in structuring the Saints roster.
Curtis Lofton is a much younger version of Jonathan Vilma who will do wonders for the Saints defense. It is important to note that Steve Spagnuolo's defense is less reliant on blitz schemes and more reliant on guys who can cover the field in pass coverage.
Lofton does a good enough job in that area to make up for the loss of Vilma. Lofton is the type of player who makes plays and stops behind the line of scrimmage. He is an aggressive player who plays within the limits of the rules.
The Saints will surely benefit from his leadership qualities, which he developed and displayed in his time as the quarterback of the Falcons defense.
For these reasons, I conclude that the year-long ban placed upon Jon Vilma will not place a great burden on the defense. Lofton is a more than adequate replacement. In fact, he may be better at this stage of his career anyway.
The four-game ban placed on Smith is likely going to be a more difficult obstacle to overcome, at least for the four games the Saints must deal with it. But that's where Bunkley's presence becomes crucial.
Bunkley needs to be an active player creating pressure up the middle. If he and Ellis can force quarterbacks to leave the pocket, that makes the edge-rushers' jobs infinitely easier. Whether it be Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, Greg Romeus or some undetermined player, defensive ends will benefit from a pressure package that originates from the interior of the line.
It is also likely that second-year outside lineback Martez Wilson will line up as an edge rusher in passing situations for Spagnuolo's defense. He may be the purest pass-rusher the Saints have on their roster. The remaining members of the front four must step up in the first four games to alleviate the pressure offenses will put on the Saints corners.
The Saints are somewhat fortunate that only two of the teams in the first quarter of their schedule have dynamic passing games. Sure, it's possible that Robert Griffin III could recreate the magical first month that Cam Newton had last September, but that seems unlikely.
But the Panthers with Cam Newton and the Packers with Aaron Rodgers could definitely test the secondary. Thus, an effective pass rush will be crucial in those games. Expect Spagnuolo to be a little more creative with his blitzes.
Unlike Gregg Williams, he will not go overboard and will make sure to time them up in an unpredictable manner. Doing so will give the Saints a chance to get to Newton and Rodgers and make it more difficult to move the ball down the field.
But Smith's absence may cause a greater discrepancy in rush defense. Though he was an overaggressive and reckless end early in his career, Smith has become a well-schooled and disciplined run defender as he's grown in experience.
Much of the reason the Saints' run defense improved so mightily in the second half of 2011 was the play of Will Smith. He performed his role as an edge-setter and contain guy about as well as any 4-3 defensive end in football.
While that aspect of the job is Cam Jordan's strength, Smith's replacement will definitely not be as adept in this role. Neither Junior Galette nor Greg Romeus (nor another undetermined player) is an experienced or proven edge-setter or contain guy.
This is a huge problem against all four offenses the Saints will face when in the inaugural stages of the 2012 season. Washington and Green Bay use zone-running schemes exclusively, and both Carolina and Kansas City will use the outside stretch play when they feel they have advantage.
To make up for their weakness on one edge, Spagnuolo is going to have add protection by bringing his outside linebacker up to set the edge. This, of course, weakens the strength of the defense on the other side. (I'm not using right or left, or strongside or weakside because it remains to be seen whether Jordan will move to Smith's side or stay on the left side, where he played for most of 2011.)
Spagnuolo has a couple options: One, he could use a number of three-man fronts and bring in Martez Wilson as essentially the opposite defensive end.
Two, he could ask Ellis and Bunkley to play essentially a two-gap system where they are no longer asked to penetrate gaps but simply required to take up large amounts of space. This would allow all of the linebackers more space and operating room to come up and make plays in the backfield.
Or three, Spagnuolo could simply take the risk and play straight up. If the Saints offense can get early scores, it would force the opposing offense into more passing situations. That would play to the Saints' advantage due to their personnel. This would obviously be the preference for he and the entire team.
But this may not work against Carolina and Green Bay—teams who are more than capable of staying with the Saints offense.
Luckily, Smith will only miss the first four games. His absence will surely be missed in those four games, but his inclusion in the lineup in Week 5 will make the Saints defense as good as is possible. When he gets back, the rush defense ought to excel, and the pass rush will be aided as well.
Fortunately, the toughest part of the Saints' schedule doesn't come to life until the latter part of the season. By then, the Saints should be operating at full strength and should have meshed.
Now if the Saints can just get Drew Brees re-signed.
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