The New Orleans Saints had to make the move from a 4-3 style defense to a 3-4, and the switch was only partly to get as far away from the Steve Spagnuolo regime as possible.
Head coach Sean Payton was allowed to return to his team a few weeks early from suspension. He wasn’t back in his chair for 72 hours before the team announced Payton fired Spagnuolo, the Saints defensive coordinator; and secondary coach Ken Flajole, and made a huge scheme announcement.
"I personally want to thank Steve and Ken for their contributions during what was an unprecedented 2012 season,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton. “Philosophically, we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment and right now is the best time to accomplish this transition.”
Nuke LaLoosh would be so proud of Payton, as he announced his presence with authority. Unlike LaLoosh, Payton’s decision-making was spot-on accurate and the right move for the Saints.
Is a switch to the 3-4 the right move for New Orleans?
Spagnuolo’s defense had just given up 7,042 yards to opposing offenses—the worst showing in the history of the league, and the locker room—whether or not you buy into the reliability of anonymous sources, as reported by the Times-Picayune—was also partially or completely anti-Spagnuolo.
The decision to move to a 3-4 scheme is steeped with possibilities. The 3-4 will allow the Saints to alter pass-rush looks and turn speedy, more agile members of the front four into bigger weapons. It’s also going to allow New Orleans to get four linebackers on the field, which is the first big reason why this new defense is a good idea.
There are four players who will benefit from a 3-4 scheme:
David Hawthorne/Curtis Lofton
Davis Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton were starters in the Saints’ 4-3 scheme, but both are better suited for middle linebacker roles. In the new 3-4 scheme, they’ll both be on the inside with a slew of options like Jonathan Casillas, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson for the outside spots.
No one should forget Hawthorne’s 117 tackle season in 2009 when he played middle linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. He led the team that season and once again in 2011 with 115 tackles.
And the 2011 season should be examined closely because Seattle used a lot of 3-4 looks that season on defense, even though they were a base 4-3 team.
Lofton enjoyed a nice 123-tackle first season in New Orleans, but his best was anchoring the middle of the Atlanta Falcons’ defense in 2011, when he fought for 147 tackles.
Hawthorne and Lofton should do extremely well when they are both in the middle, and it should be pointed out that neither linebacker is very good in pass coverage.
This season Cameron Jordan showed signs of his first-round stature. He put up eight sacks on the season and had mammoth performances like his Week 9 three-sack game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But Jordan also had games where he wasn’t terribly effective—Week 3 and 4 games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers, respectively, come to mind, as does Week 16 against the Dallas Cowboys.
Jordan is only two years removed from his All-Pac-10 campaign of 2010 at Cal, where the Bears ran the 3-4. He registered 16.5 career sacks and during his senior season posted 12.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and recovered three fumbles.
Over the past two seasons, Junior Galette has posted 9.5 sacks while never earning full-time snaps. His five sacks this past season came from only playing 29 percent (299 snaps) of the Saints’ defensive snaps.
At 6’2”, Galette doesn’t boast perfect specs for a defensive lineman. But if he could move back to an outside linebacker spot, Galette might be able to show off some of that edge speed that allowed him to create plays in very limited playing time.
Galette just finished the final year of his original three-year deal with the Saints and is a restricted free agent. It will quickly be known how the Saints feel about his ability to transition to an outside linebacker spot in the 3-4 once negotiations begin. But expect Galette to be back with the Saints and get first crack at a starting gig.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.