Spagnuolo was supposed to fix the blown coverages that the Saints had so many issues with under Gregg Williams and feast on quarterbacks with great blitzes. Ten months later, Steve Spagnuolo's defense sits at or near the bottom of every major statistical ranking and has been somewhat of an abomination.
So, what has gone wrong?
There's obviously more than one issue with New Orleans' defense but the biggest is their lack of discipline.
One of the biggest mistakes that critics make is that point out that a scheme isn't working. Well, why isn't it working? Usually it's not the design, rather the execution. In truth, scheme can sometimes be, dare I say, overrated. Even the greatest of schemes can be awful if the players don't execute their assignments. That's what has held New Orleans back from putting together a dominant defense with a potent offense.
Whether it's cornerback Patrick Robinson playing with woeful technique at the line of scrimmage, weak-side linebacker Jonathan Vilma mishandling his gap assignment or strong safety Roman Harper getting caught cheating in the backfield, the defense has been nothing short of undisciplined. There are several plays to illustrate this, one of which came against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football.
With the ball just inside the plus 45-yard line, the Eagles came out with "12" spread personnel, featuring one running back, two tight ends and quarterback Michael Vick under center.
One of the tight ends, Clay Harbor, was in line on what would become the back-side of the formation while the other, Brent Celek, was split out wide left to the play-side of the formation.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints were in their base 4-3 defense and play-side linebacker Jonathan Vilma was "splitting the difference," a term coaches use when a player midpoints between the tackle and near receiver. Vilma was going to be a target of Celek's, who motioned to the inside of the formation and administered a crack block on the Eagles' "toss-crack" play call.
There was going to be two players on this play who would fail to do their job and both were the linebackers inside of the defensive formation. Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Casillas, the inside and outside linebackers, were the culprits who lost discipline against Eagles running back Bryce Brown. Brown, a rookie from Kansas State, took the toss to the outside before identifying a cutback lane on the back-side of the formation, where the two aforementioned linebackers were supposed to be.
A closer look shows just how grand the alley created by the undisciplined Saints' linebackers was. The only hope for the defense was going to be a defensive lineman that was unlikely to get his hands on Bryce Brown, who ultimately gained 40-yards on the carry.
Philadelphia's toss-crack play call was a brilliant one, but they may have gotten the idea from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who ran a similar play two weeks prior.
Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman was lined up under center with the ball on his own 7-yard line and a "Trips Bunch" set to his left. Defensively, the Saints were once again in their base 4-3. Buccaneers No. 1 wide receiver Mike Williams, who would run a shallow cross into the middle of the field, was the target of Josh Freeman on this play and he would be wide open.
New Orleans' linebackers were watching the ball the entire way and didn't even recognize the play-action nor Williams running by them open into the middle of the field...
Williams caught the ball and gave the Buccaneers' offense some breathing room.
The lack of discipline that the Saints play with is supported statistically, which shows the pass defense being poor. They are giving up 305 yards passing per game, which ranks worst in the league, to go along with 8.7 yards per pass attempt, second worst per Pro Football Reference. They have also recorded only four interceptions, one of the lowest totals in the NFL, and haven't gotten any help a defensive line that only has 20 sacks through nine weeks.
Along with the pass, the noted run defense has been poor. Through nine weeks, they've given up 5.3 yards per carry and a total of 176.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks them second to last and worst in the league, respectively.
On Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, the defense showed some signs of life against the pass, applying pressure on quarterback Michael Vick with excellent overload blitz schemes. The usage of Steve Spagnulo's legendary mentor Jim Johnson's Double A-gap blitz was particularly noteworthy as was the intercepting of the Eagles signal-caller once in the red zone, but there were still too many moments of break down as illustrated earlier.
The cure for the Saints defense is more pass-rushers. They need players that can get after the quarterback every snap and that will most likely come via the draft, where there is an abundance of physical specimens with great upside that will most certainly improve defense, especially the play of the secondary. Despite this, New Orleans still needs to acquire better cornerbacks or instill fundamentals into the current ones if they are going to make more plays on the ball.
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