New Orleans Saints: Greatly Improved at Outside Linebacker with David Hawthorne
Scratch that, it'll be a 180-degree flip from the defense Gregg Williams employed in his three seasons as defensive coordinator. That defense constantly had players running around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Steve Spagnuolo's defense will be much more under control. It will blitz but not nearly as often, nor with as much ammo on each successive fire.
That's a good thing because middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is a smart pass-rusher, but not an explosive one. And outside linebacker David Hawthorne, brought in from Seattle where he played the "Mike" spot a season ago, is an average pass-rusher in his own right.
He is probably more explosive in that facet of the game than No. 50, but not by much. He managed two sacks a season ago (Lofton had zero), but lacks the burst or hand usage to consistently beat interior linemen to the quarterback.
Thankfully Lofton and Hawthorne make up for it in two key areas. First, Hawthorne has great instincts in all areas of the game. When he isn't blocked in the running game he's pretty much a sure thing to make the tackle. In fact, he is a more sure tackler than Lofton.
He flies to the football and wraps up as well as anyone. In the Tampa two-type system the Saints will run in 2012, this will fit Hawthorne's abilities very well. That system is known for forcing ball-carriers to the outside linebackers and allowing them to simply make the tackle.
It is possible Hawthorne could lead not just the team but the conference, or the NFL, in tackles as a result.
Second, Hawthorne is ridiculously aware in the passing game. He identifies, reads and understands route concepts as the speed of sound and light put together, if that makes any sense.
Two plays in film review stood out. In one he was covering one of the Giants' many tight ends on a drag route. He had already turned his back to go across the field with said tight end.
But because it was zone coverage he instantly recognized another Giants receiver was about to flood his zone so he jumped off the tight end and came back to cover the receiver.
Eli Manning successfully completed the pass, but because Hawthorne played the route so perfectly he was able to immediately make the tackle and stop the receiver from gaining the first-down conversion on a key third down.
On another play against Baltimore, Hawthorne was dropping into deep coverage when a pass was thrown in front of him. In what seemed like a millisecond, Hawthorne clicked his heels and got downhill to make the key tackle.
Other instances on film showed him as an aware player capable of turning opposing quarterbacks' poor throws into interceptions and big plays for the defense. On the season Hawthorne finished with three picks, six passes defensed and the two sacks.
Those are numbers the Saints will appreciate greatly. Malcolm Jenkins told Matt Mendelson of neworleanssaints.com on Monday, "The biggest thing we need to improve on is turnovers. We need to trust our instincts and make things happen. We need to take advantage of the opportunities that come."
The safety knows the lack of turnovers is a key reason for the team's defensive struggles the past two seasons and went a long way to explain the team's two crushing playoff defeats in 2010 and 2011.
Hawthorne is close to a guaranteed thing as an answer to that need. He will improve the Saints' ability to create turnovers and score the football in 2012 and beyond.
That is the main reason the Saints brought him in this offseason.
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