Why the New Orleans Saints' Banged-Up Defense Will Keep Them from Super Bowl

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystAugust 22, 2012

Photo Courtesy of NFL.com
Photo Courtesy of NFL.com

Fans of the New Orleans Saints must be wondering if there's a good old-fashioned voodoo curse on their favorite NFL team, because at the rate things are going, a defense that has been decimated by injuries and suspensions is going to insure that once again the Super Bowl doesn't feature a team playing in their home stadium.

The latest bad news to hit the Saints on defense came earlier this week, when the team's already overhauled linebacker corps underwent another seismic shift in the span of less than 24 hours.

After already losing middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to a year-long suspension and strong-side linebacker Chris Chamberlain to a torn ACL, it was revealed that Vilma's replacement and the team's new weak-side linebacker were also iffy for the beginning of the regular season due to injuries of their own.

Curtis Lofton, who was brought in from the Atlanta Falcons to fill Vilma's shoes, has been diagnosed with a high ankle sprain. The 26-year-old, who had 147 total tackles for the Falcons in 2011, told Guerry Smith of CBS Sports that he's "feeling good" and will be "ready to go" in Week 1, but the simple fact is that high ankle sprains are generally a 4-8 week injury that can be easily aggravated by coming back too soon.

Apparently, the Saints don't share Lofton's rosy outlook regarding his availability for the season opener, and with backup Ramon Humber suspended for the season's first three games, the team dealt an undisclosed draft pick to the Seattle Seahawks for middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

The 29-year-old Ruud racked over 100 tackles in four consecutive seasons from 2007-2010 as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Ruud has now fallen out of favor with three NFL franchises over the past two seasons, and the drop-off in talent from Lofton to him is precipitous.

The bad news didn't stop there. Linebacker David Hawthorne, who the Saints signed to man the weak side after he tallied 115 tackles as Seattle's middle linebacker in 2011, tore his meniscus and underwent surgery.

Interim head coach Joe Vitt (set to begin his own six-game suspension soon) tried to put a positive spin on all the injuries when speaking with Larry Holder of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"It's speculation now that they will be out for the first game," Vitt said. "We certainly think Curtis will be ready for the first game. The diagnosis for David has been encouraging. He hurt it early in the (Jaguars) game, and he played on it. He's got a chance to be back for that game."

The Saints' defense had looked fairly impressive in preseason games against the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots before backsliding a bit against the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, it's difficult to read too much into those performances (good or bad), if for no other reason than neither side is exactly opening up the proverbial bag of tricks in games that don't count.

With that said, you can certainly infer something when injuries begin to mount, especially the dreaded sort of nagging ones that can linger well into the season.

Simply put, there are too many good teams with too many prolific offenses (including, it would appear, one in the making right down the road in Atlanta) in the NFC for the Saints to be able to afford to get in an early hole this season.

Sure, the Saints have quite an offense of their own, one that's capable of matching any team score for score. Thing is, that was part of the problem last year. Too often quarterback Drew Brees and the offense were forced to carry the day, and it finally cost them in the playoff thriller against the San Francisco 49ers.

Maybe it's karmic retribution for the "bountygate" mess, or maybe it's just plain old bad luck, but the New Orleans Saints had better hope that Vitt's rosy outlook is right and they get their linebackers put back together sooner rather than later, or Super Bowl XLVII will kick off just like the first 46 did.

With the host team watching the game instead of participating in it.