How to Rebuild the New Orleans Saints Defense
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If you were an NFL general manager, how would you rebuild the New Orleans Saints defense? The defensive unit is currently ranked No. 32 overall in the NFL and they are also ranked dead last in rush defense. Other areas of concern include the pass defense and scoring defense (both ranked at No. 29).
Basically, the Saints defense has hit rock bottom, and there is nowhere to go from here but up. As for Week 6, the good news is that they have a bye week, so they now have a chance to regroup.
New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can fine-tune a number of areas that need to be addressed prior to their Week 7 game at Tampa Bay. The bye week also provides the Saints defense an opportunity to rest and heal their various injuries.
In addition, coach Joe Vitt will be able to return to the team, having fulfilled his six-week suspension.
Before we share our ideas on the rebuilding effort, let's revisit some recent history regarding the Saints defense, the 2012 offseason moves, and analyzing their performance in the first five weeks.
While the bounty scandal is clearly an important component of the 2012 version of the Saints defense, we won't dwell on that event in this article. Instead, we are going to focus on defensive personnel and game performance.
From a historical perspective, we will start with the Saints victory at Super Bowl XLIV and work from there. The 2009 Saints defense was ranked No. 25 overall, allowing 357 yards per game. The pass defense was ranked No. 26, the run defense was No. 21 and the scoring defense was No. 20, allowing 21.3 points per game.
The key to the 2009 defense was creating 39 turnovers, which was the second-highest total in the NFL. Saints defenders came up with 26 interceptions (No. 3 in NFL) and 13 fumble recoveries (No. 5 in the league). They were opportunistic and made things happen on defense. That defense gave up plenty of yards, but they stepped up with a big play when they needed to change the momentum of the game.
As the Saints defensive coordinator from 2009-2011, Gregg Williams tenure included as many highs and lows as his unit went up and down in the rankings. From a Super Bowl victory to the bounty scandal, Williams hit the extreme ends of both spectrums.
In 2010, New Orleans was the No. 4 overall defense in the NFL, allowing just 193.9 yards per game. In the playoffs, that team was upset in the Wild Card playoff game at Seattle, 41-36 when Marshawn Lynch ran through the defense like they weren't even there.
The defense vaulted 22 spots in the rankings, but the turnovers dropped from 39 to just 25. That was one of the reasons they failed to win their division title and wound up playing a Wild Card playoff game on the road.
In 2011, the Saints defense fell all the way back down to No. 24 overall, as their pass defense slipped to No. 30, giving up 259.8 yards per game. The run defense was solid at No. 12, but the turnovers continued to drop.
The 2011 defense came up with just 16 turnovers for the year. It was so bad in 2011 that the entire starting secondary only managed one interception for the season. The Saints safeties didn't have a single interception in the 2011 season. The one interception came from Jabari Greer.
So from 2009-2011, the turnovers diminished from 39 to 25 to 16. Despite the huge drop in turnovers, the Saints were still able to win the NFC South division in 2011 thanks to Drew Brees and the potent Saints offense.
As we entered the 2012 offseason, the Saints were rocked of course with the news of the bounty-scandal suspensions being handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Eventually, the Saints would have to come up with contingency plans, knowing that they would be without defensive end Will Smith, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach/LB coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis, for the various terms of their individual suspensions from Goodell. The NFL stripped away their second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
The Saints dismissed Williams as defensive coordinator and hired Spagnuolo to replace him. As we have witnessed with other coordinator changes around the league, it takes time and patience for a new coordinator to step in and turn a weak defense around. Seldom does that occur overnight.
From a personnel standpoint, the Saints got busy in free agency and signed new deals with LBs Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and they traded for LB Barrett Ruud. On the downside, the Saints had to place some defensive personnel on Injured Reserve, including DE Greg Romeus and LB Chris Chamberlain.
When it came time to turn to the draft, the Saints' first draft pick wasn't up until the No. 89 overall pick, so the vast majority of impact defenders were long gone. New Orleans drafted DE Akiem Hicks in the third round and took rookie CB Corey White at No. 162. Not much help for the defense from the draft.
Once the start of the 2012 regular season rolled around, the Saints got a brief reprieve, as the suspension of Will Smith was temporarily overturned, and Smith opened up the year as the starting right defensive end.
The rest of the Saints defensive starters were LDE Cameron Jordan, DT Brodrick Bunkley and DT Sedrick Ellis. The linebackers were Scott Shanle, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. The secondary starters include SS Roman Harper, FS Malcolm Jenkins and RCB Patrick Robinson.
LCB Jabari Greer is the Saints' best corner, and even though he practiced leading up to the season opener, his groin injury prevented him from playing. So, the Saints inserted rookie Corey White as the starter at LCB.
As luck of the draw would have it, the Saints opened up with two of the most dangerous and mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, as they faced Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers.
Facing two mobile quarterbacks that are athletic as Griffin and Newton is challenging enough, but if your front seven aren't able to contain them, your defense will be in for a long day.
The Saints defense proved to be susceptible to plays that attacked the outside edges. Washington was very effective in running wide-receiver bubble screens, and both the Redskins and Panthers were able to pick up good yards running the QB option.
You have to be aggressive in defending the bubble screens, but the Saints proved they were vulnerable on the outside. If a play keeps working, you keep running it until the other team proves that they can stop it, and that is exactly what Washington did.
On QB options, somebody has to take the quarterback, but both Griffin and Newton were allowed to run freely through the defense for big gains.
Against Washington, the Saints gave up 459 yards of total offense, allowing 6.5 yards per play. They gave up 306 yards in the air, allowing 11.8 yards per pass.
A good portion of that resulted from Griffin hitting Pierre Garcon for a 88-yard touchdown play. Washington also attacked the rookie White, who was pressed into service for Greer.
The Saints did sack Griffin twice, got five quarterback hits, but even though they forced three fumbles, came up with no turnovers in the game. Washington came up with one touchdown drive and another drive for a field goal in all four quarters. Giving up 40 points is a lot to ask of your offense, no matter who is the quarterback.
Against Carolina, it was more of the same. This time the Saints gave up 463 yards of offense, as the Panthers gained 219 yards on the ground and 244 yards in the air. They allowed Carolina to convert six out of 12 third-down conversions.
The Saints defense sacked Newton once, recovered one fumble but had only two quarterback hits in the game. Lack of a strong pass rush really hurt the Saints in this game.
Week 3 saw the Saints host the Kansas City Chiefs. Against Kansas City, the Saints gave up 273 rushing yards in an overtime loss. Jamaal Charles wound up with 233 rushing yards in the game and the Chiefs averaged 6.1 yards per rush. The Saints allowed 237 passing yards and 510 yards of total offense, which was the most they have allowed this year.
The good news was that the Saints defense created three turnovers, had three sacks, 10 pass deflections and had six tackles for a loss. Could the Saints carry over the positives to Week 4?
In Week 4, the Saints defense had to face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers dynamic offense. Rodgers threw for a predictable 319 passing yards. Green Bay ran for 102 yards, and the Saints wound up yielding 421 total yards, which amounted to an average gain of 6.4 yards per play. The Saints allowed four touchdown drives and gave up four first downs out of eight conversion tries on third-down.
What really stood out in the Green Bay game was only one quarterback hit and no tackles for a loss in the entire game. That is an effort that just doesn't cut it in the NFL.
Finally in Week 5, the Saints won their first game of the year by beating San Diego at home. The Saints gave up 427 yards of total offense, including 310 in the air and 117 yards rushing. The Chargers averaged 6.6 yards per play.
New Orleans finally stepped up their pressure, as they picked up five sacks on Philip Rivers, had a total of six tackles for loss and six quarterback hits. It helped that tackle Jared Gaither was hardly able to move in the fourth quarter, as the Saints took advantage of his injury.
We have addressed the recent history and the current year to date, so how do we go about rebuilding this defense? Maybe a better question is, does the Saints defense need to be rebuilt, or simply fine-tuned?
From an age perspective, the Saints starters on defense have a nice blend of youth and veterans. Looking at their roster, we see DE Jordan (23 years old), DT Bunkley (28), DT Ellis (27), DE Smith (31). LB Shanle (32), LB Lofton (26), LB Hawthorne (27), CB Greer (30), SS Harper (29), FS Jenkins (24) and CB Robinson (25). There are no major age concerns here to worry about.
Before we address the negatives, let's look at some of the positives. After five weeks, the Saints defense has come up with 18 tackles for a loss and 18 quarterback hits.
To give you a better idea, two top-ranked defenses we can compare those numbers to are San Francisco and Houston. After five weeks, San Francisco has only 12 tackles for a loss and 16 quarterback hits. Houston has 21 tackles for loss and 27 quarterback hits.
Another positive is the play of MLB Curtis Lofton, who was tied with Minnesota Vikings LB Chad Greenway for the NFL lead in tackles with 54 after five weeks of play. Lofton is flying all over the field, trying his best to pick up the slack for other teammates that aren't getting to the ball.
The performance on the field has to improve. Coming out of the bye week, it will be interesting to see how Spagnuolo has the team attacking the outside bubble screens to wide receivers. They will have to face Newton again, so we will know if they have improved on defending the option or not.
As for stopping the run, a number of gap assignments appear to be blown every week that are allowing running backs to find a huge hole to run through. The Saints are allowing 5.0 yards per rush this season, which is preventing the defense from getting off of the field and to turn the ball over to Drew Brees.
I consider this an area that Spagnuolo can correct over time. The defense also has to be committed to staying with their assignments, filling their gaps and doing their jobs.
Another area of concern is finding outside linebackers with better speed to help in setting the edge and turning plays inside where the help is. Too many easy yards are given up when teams are attacking the Saints outside the numbers.
The Saints pass rush is an issue. In the prior three seasons, the Saints defense generated 35 sacks in 2009, followed by two straight years of 33 sacks. They are on pace for another year in that range, where they have been ranked at No. 18 or 19 the last two years. Identifying better pass rushers through the draft or free agency will have to be a priority for the Saints in 2013.
Next up on the defensive rebuilding checklist is adding playmakers. The Saints scouting department has to identify playmakers at all three levels; defensive line, linebacker and secondary.
Adding a safety like Darren Sharper would really help out, as he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine picks in 2009. But when your starting secondary comes up with only one pick for the year, you are in trouble.
We also think it is prudent to look at the Saints roster. With so many weapons available to Drew Bees on the offense, isn't it overkill for New Orleans to carry five tailbacks on the 53-man active roster? Right now they have Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet.
Ivory has been inactive for all five games this year, so why is he on the roster? The Saints would be better served in adding another pass rusher to the team, either a defensive lineman or a linebacker.
Pending defensive free agents in 2013 for New Orleans include two starters, LB Shanle and DT Ellis. The other unrestricted free agents on defense include LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Elbert Mack and DE Turk McBride. The Saints also have restricted free agent in DE Junior Galette.
As for the duration of 2012, the Saints need to be combing the waiver wire and/or exploring trade options to see if they can add more talent to the defensive unit. By the time the 2012 season has ended, Spagnuolo will have a better idea of who he wants to retain that fits into his scheme and decide who he wants to part company with.
What do Saints fans think about the 2012 defense?
The Saints will also have head coach Sean Payton back, and that will be a huge boost to the franchise. Jonathan Vilma will be back to play for the final year of his current contract, so that should provide another spark.
New Orleans still has work to do in adding more talent on defense, and whether it comes via the 2013 draft or in free agency, they have to make an investment to upgrade the unit.
The first priority for the Saints is to add more playmakers to the defense. The Saints have to come up with players that are hungry for the ball and have the natural skills to create turnovers.
Otherwise, great performances by Drew Brees will continue to go to waste, and he only has so many years left.
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