Much has been bandied about in regard to the shift of defensive philosophy for the New Orleans Saints for the 2013 season.
Out is vilified defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with his "read-and-react," 4-3-based alignment. In is the mercurial Rob Ryan with his explosive 3-4-based multiple alignment.
Pundits and fans alike both believe the Saints possess the personnel to execute this complex defense. I wholeheartedly agree. I also have a way for the Saints to maximize their defensive potential. And all it takes is a couple of minor personnel changes.
Fans of the New Orleans Saints must have to break out "Football for Dummies" on a regular basis. The heart and soul of the team lies between head coach Sean Payton and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and their extremely complex and multifaceted offensive sets.
Running a blend of a West Coast offense that relies on short, rhythm-based passes, with a vertical pass scheme that is a threat on any down and distance to go for an explosive play—the Saints possess one of the toughest offensive schemes in all football to wrap your brain around.
The Saints faithful got a break last season when Steve Spagnuolo was brought aboard to coordinate his style of defense. While usually effective, Spagnuolo's defense left much to be desired for fans of the complexities of the technical game.
Running a 4-3 that's based on getting pressure organically through superior defensive line play, like his 2007 coordinated Super Bowl-winning New York Giants unit, the Saints personnel didn't mesh with the once-revered defensive coach's approach the game.
Present day, the Saints may be able to boast having both the most complex offense and defense in the NFL. But as fans of Rob Ryan's scheme can attest, being circuitous in your attack is not always a recipe for success.
I've personally been a fan of Rob Ryan since he coordinated some wildly entertaining defenses in Oakland (circa 2004). I started to follow him because of his work with one of my favorite defensive minds in Bill Belichick and the uber-successful New England Patriots at the initial point in their dynasty.
And, of course, it didn't hurt that his father is famed defensive guru Buddy Ryan of the '85 Chicago Bears fame. But what drew me most to Ryan was the versatility within his scheme. It's an aspect that will fit perfectly with his present-day club, the New Orleans Saints.
I did a piece on Ryan earlier in the summer, speculating on how he would use the Saints given personnel. This piece was done after the draft, so just about every piece he presently has in place.
I came to the conclusion that the most important offseason piece may very well be first-round draft pick safety Kenny Vaccaro. In Ryan's last stop in Dallas, he liked to play his best pass-rushers, regardless of position in clear pass situations. He also loved to get his best defensive backs on the field at the same time, regardless of position with the prerequisite skill being good tackling ability.
The combination of physical veteran safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper would mesh well with Vaccaro's versatility and physicality. While most thought Vaccaro would take Harper's spot at strong safety in the base defense, I had a feeling that might not be the case.
Ryan values veterans who are heady enough to learn his scheme. By all accounts, Harper is one of the most football-intelligent players on the roster. He's also a good tackler when playing in the "muddy waters" also known as the "box."
One thing I didn't take into account was that Ryan would employ Harper to defend the tight end in pass situations.
I wouldn't have suggested this be the way to go, and neither would most people who watch the Saints on a weekly basis. See, this is where Harper is a complete liability, and Saints enthusiasts have always known this. This fact reared its ugly head in the Saints preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Here we have Harper matched up against Chiefs TE Anthony Fasano on the most critical down and distance of a series. (The Saints must win on third down, especially in the NFC South where the other three teams may very well be in the top five or top 10 as far as pass offense and total offense.)
This is actually the "21 personnel" by the Chiefs. The slot receiver, No. 42 Anthony Sherman, is actually a fullback. I highlighted Vaccaro so you can see the innate difference in technique between Harper and Vaccaro.
If you've ever played the position of corner, which essentially is what Harper is playing in this sub package, then you can see that his technique gives him little chance to compete. He's standing pretty erect with a wide base.
He needs to lean his body slightly over his feet and lessen the width of his base. This will enable him to use his hips to maneuver. By contrast, Vaccaro is using perfect form. He's out over his feet and is already using his hips to turn and run with the tight end.
Right here, I can hear my old coaches say, "Don't let your man beat you inside!" (I can actually still smell his breath when he was saying it too! Ewww!) But this is exactly what Harper does.
Harper should've positioned himself so that he forced the tight end to run through him which would throw off the timing of the route. In the best-case scenario, he would've forced the receiver to dramatically readjust his route, forcing the QB to look elsewhere.
Regardless of what happens initially, Harper can still put himself in better position to affect the play. He needed to stay on the right hip of the tight end, forcing a throw over the top. With the TE having this much cushion, all the QB has to do is lead his pass target.
If Harper were on the correct hip, he would be able to use his right arm to attempt to deflect the pass. He would have to have arms like hoops star Kevin Durant to affect the pass from this position.
As we can see, the Chiefs easily move the chains on their way to resetting the down and distance. Imagine if this were Greg Olsen or Tony Gonzalez, talented tight ends for the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, respectively. This may have been a 25-plus-yard gain, rather than a nine-yard triumph.
Game 1 Notes/Summary:
Ultimately, I'd like to see No. 32, Vaccaro, defend the tight end, but defending the slot receiver carries an even greater value. No. 27, Malcolm Jenkins, is always the deepest safety in any set. He would be better guarding the tight end as he's a former corner.
No. 25, Rafael Bush, plays the strong safety role and is a very capable tackler with some pretty good speed. He's in his correct position. No. 42, free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, is the perfect player to play Jenkins' role. With 4.4 speed, he's already shown he has great range and a nose for the ball. So that would leave No. 41, Roman Harper, on the bench in this set.
In this game, I could truly see the benefit of Roman Harper. He was the signal-caller for the entire back-end. He often shifted the coverage depending on what he saw. In addition, Rob Ryan unveiled another formation that kind of mirrored my notes from Game 1. If anything, it shows how interchangeable Jenkins and Vaccaro are. But once again, the same problem arose for Harper.
Now we see No. 27, Jenkins, in the role occupied by No. 32, Vaccaro, in the first game. Harper still remains in his normal strong safety position and is in man coverage with Oakland Raiders tight end David Ausberry. Vaccaro and No. 25, free safety Rafael Bush, are manning the back-end in zone coverage.
Here's a closer look at the matchup between Harper and Ausberry. Harper plays this one a little better initially.
He remembered my coach telling him to not give up the inside so he plays it that way. Too bad this is a seam route.
Harper is staying in his hip pocket and is doing fairly decent job at this point. (Although he is running kinda funny?!)
This is where the bread is buttered. As good of a job as Harper has done, he needs to look when the receiver looks to locate the ball.
Well...the catch is made—and Harper still hasn't looked. As a matter of fact, it's been some days now, and I'm not sure if he'll ever look!
Roman Harper Verdict
As valuable as Harper may be in the football intelligence department he lacks the acumen to defend tight ends in the NFL at this point in his career. He's still very physical but is being miscast in this offense. If Ryan can bring him in to play the run predominately he would have some value, but if not....
I officially deem Roman Harper a personnel misfit.
Another point of contingency happens to be at the outside linebacker spot. With the potential season-ending injury to prized free agent Victor Butler, fans are clamoring to know who will pressure the QB predominantly from edges. One thing I'm pretty sure of, Will Smith isn't the answer!
In the first game, the lack of pressure ate the Saints defense alive. The inability to get off the field on third down was apparent on more than one occasion. Furthermore, the clean pocket that Chiefs QB Alex Smith operated from was extremely damning.
The Saints were minus linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson—two players I firmly believe possess the athleticism to generate pressure from all areas of the field. In addition, I believe both can play in space when called upon. Pretty much, these are primary attributes Smith is lacking at this point in his career.
In this first game, Smith had a well-documented play in space against Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles that vividly exposed his lack of athleticism.
While Smith wasn't put in a precarious position like this play in the second game, studying him on film did nothing to dissuade my opinion that he's a square peg in a round hole at the 3-4 OLB position.
It's dumbfounding, considering Smith could possibly be one of the best players on the team if moved to the 5-techique defensive end. Standing up as a linebacker not only exposes his lack of quickness, speed, and agility, but it also negates his best attribute (power), by having him lose in the leverage game on a pass rush.
Smith, at 280 pounds, is more powerful coming out of a low sprinter's stance than rushing from the stand-up position. So if Smith can't play in space, can't cover tight ends and is ineffective in pass-rushing situations—all-important skills for this position—how is he not considered an extreme liability?
Fans will point to a sack that Smith had against the Raiders, but that was a scheme sack rather than pure effort and skill on Smith's part.
Fans need to look introspectively. During play, so far, has Smith flashed on your screen like a Kenny Vaccaro, Ramon Humber or Glenn Foster?
Will Smith Verdict
Will Smith needs to be moved to a down lineman in all formations of the defense. The rotation at OLB in the base 3-4 alignment should read as such: Junior Galette, Martez Wilson, Jay Richardson and Victor Butler if he's able to return this season. If there's no room for Smith as a lineman, it may be time for him to start collecting splinters in his buttocks only to surface in rare passing situations.
The first preseason game was a disaster defensively; the second was the complete opposite. Only time will tell if the Saints have the personnel to truly master the Rob Ryan defense. But with these two slight personnel tweaks, they could very well be on their way.
But I regret to say...Will Smith is a personnel misfit.
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